VANDUSER, Mo. (BP)–As the guys on the Arkansas disaster chainsaw team — tired after a long day of working a recent Missouri storm — ate their dinner at a local Southern Baptist church, the big, burly man who came in was impossible to miss. Imagine John the Baptist with a Stihl chainsaw.
Dressed in blue denim, with a full, graying beard and huge hands, Tom Stanton dropped by their table and asked if they needed any chainsaws sharpened.
“The Saw Man,” as Stanton is called, didn’t have to ask twice. Any operator of a chainsaw knows that a dull chainsaw is useless, and sharpening chainsaws is a prickly job best left to experts. And The Saw Man is just that.
Stanton’s unique chainsaw-sharpening ministry is valuable to Southern Baptist disaster relief chainsaw teams who respond to ice storms, tornadoes, hurricanes and other disasters.
Stanton, 53, calls Deer River, Minn. -– about 100 miles south of the Canadian border -– home. Until last October, he pastored a small church there.
Now, his “day job” is running a shear/scissor sharpening business.
Stanton’s disaster relief ministry began 2001 when a major tornado hit Siren, Wis. The following day -– after a sleepless night -– he felt “called” to go to Wisconsin.
“I had no clue what I was going to do,” said Stanton, who first learned to sharpen chainsaws as an 18-year-old logger in Montana. “My first paycheck was a chainsaw.
“In Wisconsin, I found guys who didn’t know how to file chainsaws. So I volunteered and started sharpening. People came out of the woodwork. I sharpened chains with a file for three days until a preacher got me a 12-volt rotary tool. Then I sharpened for another 10 days.”
That was the beginning of Stanton’s chainsaw-sharpening ministry. He doesn’t know for sure but figures he’s sharpened thousands of chainsaws in the wake of disasters, including Hurricane Katrina. He doesn’t charge a penny.
Financially, how does Stanton cover his expenses? What about $3-plus-a-gallon gasoline for the Ford pickup truck he must drive to disasters? What about tools? Lodging? Food?
“God provides,” Stanton said. “The people are really generous with me.” He said God gave him his sharpening business back home, which provides most of his day-to-day financial needs.
“Through the years, God has provided for me miraculously with a small camper/trailer, a generator and even with my truck, given to me by a Christian friend from my hometown. Last year, someone gave me a GPS so I won’t get lost!”
These days, Stanton is too professional to use files or even his original rotary tool to sharpen saws. Now he uses a Dremel tool.
“Dremel Company now provides me with all my tools. In fact, I was invited to their plant in Racine, Wis., to teach their people how to use their tool.” With the Dremel device, Stanton does not have to remove the chain from the chainsaw to sharpen it, which saves significant time and effort.
During the first two weeks after Hurricane Katrina, someone estimated that Stanton sharpened 2,000 chainsaws in Louisiana and Mississippi. He worked as many as 20 hours a day.
“Since I can leave the chain right on the saw, I can pull up to a bunch of guys and easily sharpen 10 saws an hour,” Stanton said. “When I have someone to hand me the saws, I can do 16 an hour. Hand-filing takes up to 20 minutes apiece. This helps the disaster relief teams get back to work faster.”
Why would a man who’s had both hips replaced — and who last year suffered a heart attack requiring 10 stents — chase natural disasters around the country to sharpen chainsaws for strangers?
“It’s really hard for me to stand back and see somebody else hurting,” Stanton said. “I’ve been crippled up through the years. Since 1997, I haven’t been able to do much physically for people except for chainsaw sharpening. It’s a tremendous need.”
Stanton even has a Bible verse, Ecclesiastes 10: 9-10, that reflects his ministry: “… the one who cuts wood may be endangered by doing it. If the axe is dull, and one does not sharpen its edge, then one must exert more strength….”
“God has allowed me to see many people make professions of faith in Jesus Christ. I go to disasters, sharpen chainsaws and tell people how to avoid the world’s greatest disaster,” which Stanton says is rejecting Christ.
At a disaster site, Stanton witnesses to the public during the day as he sharpens their chainsaws. He gives out tracts and New Testaments from a five-gallon pail he calls the “Bucket of Hope.” At night, he sharpens chainsaws for disaster relief workers, including those from Southern Baptist teams -– counseling, challenging and encouraging Christian men in their walks with God.
Stanton would like to see his chainsaw sharpening ministry go full-time.
“I’d love to go to fires, ice storms, snowstorms — do it full-time if the Lord opened up the door for it.”
He’s also eager to train others on the fine points of chainsaw sharpening. In fact, he’s taught two classes for the Mississippi Baptist Convention.
“I’d love to teach chainsaw sharpening as an evangelistic ministry to every association -– just to equip people to get out there. I’m just praying that God will raise up more people to do what I do.”
Fritz Wilson, Florida Baptists’ director of disaster relief and recovery, has known Stanton for several years, working several hurricanes and other disasters with him. He calls Stanton a “super” Christian with a unique ministry.
“He comes in and sharpens our saws, and then goes out in the community and offers to sharpen anyone’s saw,” Wilson said. “Tom has a unique ministry and uses sharpening to parallel the Christian life and walk. He tells people that we can’t be good tools for Christ unless we stay sharp.”
In 2007 alone, the North American Mission Board tallied thousands of tree-removal jobs performed by disaster relief volunteers throughout the United States. While state Southern Baptist conventions provide the manpower and most equipment, NAMB coordinates multi-state disaster responses and partners with national relief groups like the American Red Cross and Salvation Army to ensure vital services reach the most critical-need areas quickly.
Mickey Noah is a writer with the North American Mission Board.