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SBC president carries hope to the hurting along hurricane’s path

NORTH PORT, Fla. (BP)–The devastation of southwest Florida by Hurricane Charley reminded Bobby Welch of two other experiences that hit close to home — Hurricane Andrew and the war in Vietnam.

Welch, president of the 16-million-member Southern Baptist Convention and pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach, Fla., surveyed nearly a dozen sites Aug. 18 where hundreds of thousands of Floridians were left shattered and homeless by the category four hurricane that cut a 200-mile-long and 30-mile-wide swath through the peninsular state Aug. 13.

“The only place I have ever seen to rival what happened at Homestead (Fla.) in the night was the war in Vietnam. You have a lot of that same stuff here,” said Welch, digesting the day’s images of crumpled metal trailers, mile after mile of torn and mangled tree branches and twisted wires and road signs bent nearly to the ground from the force of the wind.

Dressed in blue jeans and hiking boots, the Alabama native drove with water and supplies from Daytona Beach, where his own house and church were still without power from the massive storm, through Orlando, south to Arcadia, and then west to Punta Gorda where Charley’s massive winds and pounding rain came on shore. From Punta Gorda, he headed north to North Port where the Florida Baptist Convention Disaster Relief ministry has joined forces with the North American Mission Board and many other state Disaster Relief units to coordinate what has been the largest relief effort since 9/11.

After spending the day hiking around the rubble to help deliver water, visit damaged churches and encourage disaster relief volunteer leaders, Welch said there were three things that impacted him most — the storm’s lasting effect on people, the Christian response to the physical needs created by Charley and the ability of Baptists to focus on the spiritual needs of people, even in the midst of taking care of their physical needs.

“I think the overwhelming thing to me is the unexpected devastation that can come and change things in some huge numbers of people’s lives, hundreds of thousands, in just the blink of an eye,” Welch said.

And the response has been tremendous, Welch said, crediting Christians and others, like American Red Cross workers, who made a decision to “just abandon themselves to rise to the occasion to try to meet the needs.”

“The fact that our people and Southern Baptists from all over have come together to this place is touching and moving and astounding,” Welch said. “What thrills me, though, is the fact that we have not lost focus on why we are doing this.

“We are doing this to help, yes, but also, we want to keep in mind and in the forefront of our heart that the worst disaster that can happen is a spiritual disaster where people do not know the Lord,” Welch said. “There are many people who can give a cup of cold water, but we should be giving it in Jesus’ name.”

Welch, a former president of the Florida Baptist State Convention, credited John Sullivan, the convention’s executive director-treasurer, for helping keep the relief effort in perspective.

“Nobody is more focused than John Sullivan, and when he is in the lead, then you’re going to know that they are going to stay focused on the right thing,” Welch said after touring the command center and relief operations set up at South Biscayne Baptist Church in North Port, just north of the most heavily hit area of the state. “Everything is moving in that direction and has really blessed me.”

At South Biscayne, Welch spoke with Sullivan and the church’s pastor, John Cross, about how Southern Baptists have responded to the tremendous needs. Touring the facilities where disaster relief teams from throughout the country are checking in for assignments and offering food and supplies on the spot, Welch shook hands with and encouraged volunteers.

Richard Fountain, pastor of First Baptist Church in Tavares, Fla., said he was encouraged by Welch’s visit and appreciated him for stopping in to stay informed.

Fresh from taking a shower in one of the shower units provided by the SBC’s North American Mission Board, Fountain said he had been out all day clearing debris with a chainsaw crew from his church.


Earlier in the day, Welch, and David Cox, associate pastor at First Baptist Daytona Beach, had coordinated with the pastor of First Baptist Church in Arcadia to take food and water into a mostly neglected mobile home community in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood.

Close to citrus groves from which many of the Arcadians earn their living, the neighborhood spanned dozens of streets where mobile homes, trailers and small houses were mostly smashed and torn by the storm.

Walking and then riding in the back of a pick-up truck pulling a 22-foot trailer with supplies from Westside Baptist Church in Zephryhills, Fla., Welch greeted a surprising number of people who emerged from homes and asked them if they needed help with water or food.

“God bless you,” he told people, with the help of a translator, “El Dios le bendice.”

At one point in his trek, Welch approached two children riding a pink two-wheeled bike through the neighborhood.

“Can I ride?” he asked 11-year-old Jesus Alvarado, who had borrowed his sister’s bike to get out of the stifling heat inside his home where the power may not be restored for up to a month. The boy’s 4-year-old second cousin “Chilito” Alvarez, who had been riding on the handlebars, nodded “yes.”

Taking off down the street, Welch rode backwards for more than 20-feet while the children watched in astonishment, until the statesman finally veered of course and headed toward a ditch.

“I used to do this all the time when I did bus ministry,” Welch smiled, handing the bike back to the boys.

At the entrance to one small house with peeling paint and plastic-covered windows, Welch was welcomed into the yard by Joe Talamantez and his 9-year-old son, Jordan.

Sharing the offer of supplies with Talamantez, Welch also handed the man a tract and asked if he and his family attended church.

To Welch’s delight, the man said he and his wife and five children were all baptized into the fellowship of Hispanic Baptist Church in Arcadia where they have attended for four years. His mood turned somber, however, when the man said they had been staying in the tattered house since the hurricane wiped out the larger home they recently secured in a better neighborhood. Gathered in one of the houses’ only standing bedrooms, the family had barely weathered the storm.

“We will pray for you, brother,” Welch said, patting the man’s shoulder. “Let’s see what we can do to help you.”

Later, reflecting on his experience in Arcadia, Welch said he was moved by the way the Pastor Young and his wife, Michelle, were opening their church and their hearts to reach out to the community.

Michelle Young, he said, is to be appreciated for the way she was right out there with her husband, helping the people.

“We expect the preachers, and we wonder where they are if they are not there, but you never wonder where the pastor’s wife is if she’s not there,” Welch said. “But this one was right out there — red-faced, soaking wet with sweat, riding in the back of the pick-up with us, walking the streets, and interacting — she was on the cutting edge, and I really appreciate that.”

Welch said he also will remember a woman who stood in front of her mobile home talking about riding the storm out inside with her dog while homes all around were leveled.

“I remember her saying she knew the Lord and had gotten way away from the Lord,” Welch said, “and she shared … that when all of those trailers started coming apart around her, it impacted her life for the Lord. She wasn’t able to talk much more.”

Drawing on his memory of the day, Welch remembered also that three young men prayed to receive Christ when Cox stayed behind to share with them while the others moved around the neighborhood delivering water and food.

“That was very memorable to me because they were our first contact people when we came to that corner and Brother David stayed back and shared with them,” Welch said.

Commenting on the need to be culturally sensitive, Welch said Southern Baptists “have their antennas” up in that area and are on course.

Elsa Mendosa is an example of just that, he said.

Mondosa, a member of First Baptist Arcadia, helped scout the neighborhood in advance to see what the needs were and led the group around. She speaks fluent Spanish and English and translated when needed.

“Wasn’t it a wonderful picture,” Welch surmised. “We were out there together and never missed a beat. We just ingrafted her in and we jumped in the truck and we got in the back and we went out there.

“You know that’s a beautiful picture of the church at work and we have got to do that on a larger scale, and you don’t have to have a hurricane to do it,” he continued. “You have to have heaven in the balance to do it.”


Later at Punta Gorda, Welch spoke with Pastor Paul Russell about the widespread destruction around First Baptist Church, only blocks from the gulf where the hurricane came ashore.

Though the building is mostly intact except for the steeple dangling from the roof, the parsonage where a staff member lives was almost completely demolished — and the entire complex will probably be without electricity for at least another few weeks. The church is housed in a newer building, but was established in 1889.

“What can we do to help?” Welch asked.

Russell hesitated for a moment.

“We need money,” he said. “Money to pay for the lumber I had to buy this morning, money for the increase we will expect in electricity bills once the power comes on and relief workers will use our facilities.”

Welch assured Russell he would get the word out.

“Let me pray for you, brother,” he said.

Russell said later that a five-member team, of which he is part, has been making door-to-door rounds to try and locate the more than 800 sometimes-seasonal members of his church.

On the wall just inside the church office — where the daylight through an open door makes it visible — is a large map of the area and alphabetic lists of members who have already been located. On a counter, several sheets of bright gold paper list members whose whereabouts are still unaccounted for.

At South Biscayne in North Port, Welch went out of his way to make sure to speak to Richard Earnest, a member of Bay Street Baptist Church in Eustis. Earnest and three others from his church had been manning a chain saw crew — and while they were at it, witnessed to a number of people, 28 of whom prayed to receive Christ.

Welch is the co-creator of the FAITH/Sunday School Evangelism Strategy widely used in Southern Baptist churches. A member of a FAITH team from Bay Street, Earnest told Welch a tremendous number of professions of faith had been recorded at his 800-member church since they instituted the strategy two years ago.

“Back up a little, I may shout right now,” Welch told the man. “God bless you.”

Summarizing the day’s events, Welch underscored Southern Baptists’ focus on meeting people’s needs — spiritual as well as physical.

“It’s good to see everyone working together,” he said, also pointing out that it’s because of the cooperative nature and the SBC’s Cooperative Program — as well as state mission’s offerings, like the Maguire State Missions Offering in Florida that helps fund disaster relief — that Southern Baptists can do so much.

“The fact is that Southern Baptists are not losing focus and they are ministering to people’s needs and they are getting the Gospel into the field,” Welch said. “That’s thrilling to me.”
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.FloridaBaptistWitness.com.

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