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SBTC, Salvation Army join forces in hurricane relief

PORT ARTHUR, Texas (BP)–With a cell phone in one hand and a satellite phone in the other, Bill Davenport left his Dallas area office Sept. 26 for Port Arthur, Texas, while trying to contact officials at the Salvation Army.

A consultant for disaster relief to the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, Davenport had just returned from 23 days in New Orleans, where he’d partnered with the Salvation Army in preparing a million meals in response to Hurricane Katrina’s devastation.

Relocating to Port Arthur, Davenport was gearing up to help Hurricane Rita evacuees who’d be returning to their homes and to assist others like himself who were working in the crippled metropolitan area.

Before long, his cell phone rang. A layman in the Dallas area knew of Davenport’s need for a mobile command center. So he phoned Davenport, telling him where he could pick up a used recreational vehicle for that purpose. When the paperwork is complete, Davenport says he’ll have use of the vehicle at any time for disaster relief, as the layman intends to donate the vehicle to SBTC.

“The mobile command center was such a desperate need,” Davenport said. “In New Orleans, it proved almost impossible to run the business end of what was essentially a restaurant from my car seat.”

Davenport and his caravan of eight vehicles and about two dozen volunteers finally rolled into Port Arthur, a vacated city, late Monday evening, Sept. 26. The once bustling city was eerily still and dark.

Finding Trinity Baptist Church, the team settled down to battle thirsty mosquitoes and the muggy darkness.

The next day, Davenport was on his phones again, trying to get food and equipment coordinated to start feeding hungry people. With permission from Trinity’s pastor, Davenport’s team moved several hundred pounds of canned goods from the church’s abundant food pantry to nearby Ridgewood Baptist Church because of its more central location, well-equipped kitchen and hot showers.

Davenport soon learned that city officials and law enforcement personnel at a nearby Holiday Inn needed food, so the volunteers swung into action, preparing 500 hot meals. However, the meals were distributed elsewhere when it was later discovered another group had fed the officials.

That didn’t matter to Davenport and his team. They were there to minister to people and feed them, which they did.

Davenport’s ideal plan meant finding a place where a large, truck-trailer-sized, self-contained kitchen could be parked. Having found the sight on a defunct shopping center’s parking lot, Davenport continued his quest of coordination and requisition, despite the communications difficulties natural disasters bring.

Meanwhile, he assigned some team members to scout the city for food distribution sites, where smaller, mobile trucks — Davenport calls them “canteens” — would deliver the food prepared at the main kitchen.

While looking for feeding sites, one team found 30 elderly people who hadn’t eaten for two days. So they hustled back and made up lunches for delivery.

Another team discovered the Lora family. The three also had not eaten for two days. After returning to the family’s home with a box of food, several freshly made sandwiches, and some bottles of ice cold water, Mike Northern of First Baptist Church in Pflugerville, Texas, began to tell the family that Jesus loved them. Sydney Harvey of FBC in Elgin prayed while she stood near the circle of hunger and hope.

In a matter of minutes, the parents were repeating after Northern a prayer of repentance from sins, and of commitment of their lives to Christ.

“I don’t have words to describe how grateful we are,” Laticia Lora said. “I knew God would take care of us.”

Meanwhile on Thursday after the hurricane hit, the Salvation Army’s mobile kitchen rolled into the shopping center parking lot in Port Arthur. Davenport’s smile seemed bigger than the truck. That’s because he knew that by noon on Friday, the team would be preparing hot lunches for several thousand people from the Salvation Army-owned vehicle.

“It’s a win-win situation for both the Southern Baptists of Texas and the Salvation Army,” Davenport said. “They’ve got equipment and resources we don’t have, and we’ve got the manpower they lack.”

Davenport told Baptist Press the relationship began when he responded to an invitation to attend the Salvation Army’s national convention last April.

“I asked some of the [Salvation] Army’s people, ‘Wouldn’t you like to have a Christian group cooking and serving your food?’” Davenport recalled, quoting Salvation Army officials as answering, “‘Yes, and we want someone to minister to the people, too.’”

Davenport said both entities would maintain their separate identities but would work jointly in disaster relief ministry.

The arrangement, Davenport said, worked so well in Louisiana that the Salvation Army permitted him to order food from their sources to be used for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief feeding stations –- where the food was cooked and distributed by Southern Baptists in Salvation Army mobile facilities.

“In Louisiana, the [Salvation] Army set up a command center with personnel overseeing the feeding operation,” Davenport said. “But in Port Arthur, they dropped off the kitchen, handed me the keys and left. That means they trust us.”

Davenport says the Port Arthur deployment is for 90 days. But he shrugs off questions about how taxing disaster relief work is, saying he “thrives in this environment. I love it.”

But when asking him why he does it, the answer comes with a hitch in his voice and misty eyes: “I spent the first 20 years of my career as an architect, basically on an ego trip. I decided to give the next 20 years to my family. I was hockey and soccer coach for my kids, and I helped start a Christian school. Now, God has given me a third life, and I’m blessed. My goal is to spend the rest of my life working for Him. It’s my passion. It drives me.”

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  • Norm Miller