BUFFALO, N.Y. (BP)–No one would have wished for the record-breaking blizzard that hit Buffalo in October, but from an evangelistic standpoint, many are saying it has provided more opportunities to share Christ than at any time since 1988’s Billy Graham crusade.
“The citizens of Buffalo and the surrounding area now know who the Southern Baptists with the yellow shirts and yellow caps are,” says Terry Henderson, disaster relief associate with the North American Mission Board.
The heavy, wet snow -– 24 inches during a 12-hour period — blanketed Buffalo Oct. 12-13. Because the storm hit so unseasonably early –- when colorful autumn leaves were still on the trees -– the combination of leaves and heavy snow caused trees to fall across homes, power lines and streets in record numbers. An estimated 20,000 trees were lost.
Following downed trees and limbs came a massive electricity blackout, with some 400,000 homes and businesses without power for seven days.
When the Baptist Convention of New York’s disaster relief director, Chuck Stebbins, asked NAMB’s disaster relief group for assistance, Henderson activated NAMB’s disaster operations center and mobilized chainsaw teams. The first volunteers to arrive were from Virginia.
More than 1,200 disaster relief volunteers from 20 Baptist state associations have been working in shifts in Buffalo since the storm hit, Gerald Peters, commander of NAMB’s national Incident Command Service (ICS), reported.
“Today, almost a month later, we still have 105 volunteers working, most as chainsaw teams,” Peters said Nov. 9. A longtime disaster relief volunteer and Baptist preacher from Park Hill, Okla., the 72-year-old Peters said plans call for shutting down operations by Nov. 18.
The chainsaw crews have completed 542 tree-removal jobs for local citizens, Peters said, along with serving 3,440 meals; and providing nearly 1,200 showers. The ICS office received 1,560 requests for assistance with downed trees.
“More importantly, our chainsaw crews have presented the Gospel 236 times resulting in 14 decisions for Christ,” Peters said. The crews also have distributed hundreds of free Bibles and tracts.
Peters said the disaster relief crews couldn’t have accomplished as much without the cooperation and support of Mike Flannery, director of missions for the Frontier Baptist Association in Buffalo and five Buffalo-area churches: Amherst Baptist Church, Buffalo Creek Community Church, New Hope Baptist Church, New Life Baptist Church and North Buffalo Community Church. These churches have housed the waves of 1,200 volunteers since their initial arrival in Buffalo in mid-October.
“This has been the greatest thing for the cause of Christ and evangelism in this area over the last 13 years I’ve been here,” Flannery said. “We [Southern Baptists] have been under the radar as far as helping the Buffalo community. While we never pray for a disaster, we have prayed for an opportunity to show what Southern Baptists are about and what we can do. This has been a tangible way to do that.
“It’s a show-and-tell situation. We show Christian love and then tell them about the love of Christ. It’s an open window for evangelism and now we have to go through it,” Flannery said. “A lot of people called it a surprise storm, but it didn’t surprise God.”
Flannery said the unprecedented snowstorm left people in Buffalo shaken, especially senior citizens. Although they normally revel in handling harsh winter weather and are used to bitter cold and several feet of snow each year, Flannery said this storm was different.
“Their power was out for several days. When our chainsaw crews showed up, the seniors actually cried and were really appreciative.”
Flannery said citizens continually have attempted to pay the Baptist chainsaw teams for their work.
“We consistently tell them that the price has already been paid by the Lord Jesus Christ and that there is no charge.”
The disaster relief team established a system whereby senior adults received priority; as a result, 75-80 percent of the chainsaw work was done for seniors. The other top priority groups were the needy, the handicapped and single parents.
Both Flannery and Peters commended area city and county officials for their cooperation -– to the point that the county has been providing damage assessment and chainsaw teams with free gasoline for their vehicles.
The disaster relief team will give Buffalo-area Southern Baptist pastors the names of the local residents assisted -– especially the names of those who made decisions for Christ -– and the ministers will follow up with cards and letters before dispatching visitation teams, Flannery said.
State conventions providing disaster relief volunteers in Buffalo were Arizona, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland/Delaware, Michigan, Missouri, New England, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania/South Jersey, South Carolina, Tennessee, Utah/Idaho, Southern Baptist Conservatives of Virginia, Baptist General Association of Virginia and West Virginia.