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Southern Baptists providing food, comfort at Pentagon’s ‘Camp Unity’

ARLINGTON, Va. (BP)–They call it Camp Unity, the place where hundreds of workers sifting through rubble, gathering remains or otherwise associated with the gaping chasm in the side of the Pentagon seek relief, comfort and sustenance.

Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers from North Carolina were among the first to arrive in the south parking lot of the Pentagon the morning after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack. They set up food lines for walk-ins and supplied meals to American Red Cross workers in golf carts for delivery to those unable to leave the site.

But they have since been joined by others to set up what amounts to a no-charge food court in this high-security enclave, making good food at least one bright spot at one of the epicenters of America’s Sept. 11 tragedy. The Salvation Army is there, and a Christian group from Louisiana called Christ in Action provides Cajun fare. Also on hand are McDonald’s, Burger King, Outback Steakhouse and barbecue chicken from Tyson Foods.

But while the restaurants offer the sizzle, it is the Southern Baptists who provide much of the long-term volume and stability that comes from their role as the acknowledged leader in this sort of operation.

“We provide the comfort food,” said Gaylon Moss, Disaster Relief director for North Carolina Baptists and supervisor of the Pentagon operation. “The novelty wears off after a while and you start wanting salad and vegetables, chicken and dumplings and things that you eat at home more often.”

Mobile kitchens such as this are the core of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief efforts in the wake of the terrorist attacks, with four additional units set up at three separate locations in New York providing similar services there. Their work is based on a unique partnership with the American Red Cross (ARC) that results in the vast majority of ARC meals coming directly from Southern Baptist kitchens.

“It’s a marvelous relationship,” said Thomas Brown, Red Cross mass care officer at the Pentagon site. “We depend on Southern Baptists for their production capability. They’re good at it, and we’ve worked together for many, many years.

“There’s a lot of trust involved,” he added. “We know that Southern Baptists are going to operate under the Red Cross protocol, and they know that the Red Cross is going to operate under the Red Cross protocol. So it just makes it a lot easier.”

At the Pentagon, those efforts have resulted in more than 32,000 meals for the workers, with Southern Baptist crews working around the clock in two shifts. The first group of volunteers, from an area of western North Carolina, was replaced after six days by a new team from an area just northeast of Charlotte.

The routine can be difficult. The volunteers sleep on Sunday school room floors as guests of Columbia Baptist Church in nearby Falls Church. At the site, they might be cooking up to 40 gallons of black-eyed peas at a time, washing food containers and pots according to carefully prescribed procedures, serving food or wiping tables. But periodically the reality sets in, and the volunteers realize their unique place in supporting what has become a national war effort.

“The thing that strikes me is that the work itself isn’t glamorous or anything like that, but then you look up and realize where you are and the people around you, and really it’s overwhelming,” said Angela Bivins, a member of Providence Baptist Church in Cary, N.C. “It’s incredible.”

The workers coming through the lines run the gamut from office workers directly assigned to assist with the response, to workers in white hazardous materials containment suits, to black-uniformed officers and agents sporting an alphabet soup of abbreviations for their respective agencies.

“There are some who come in with machine guns,” said James Curlee, a volunteer from Franklin County, N.C. “They just sit here and eat with them. They don’t take them off.”

But throughout Camp Unity, there is a spirit of gratefulness and cooperation. Tables are graced not only with fruit and snacks, but of special cards with messages of appreciation from schoolchildren. Volunteers issue verbal encouragement, talking with workers when they have opportunity.

“Our best time with the relief workers is at the midnight meal,” Moss said. “Things are a little slower, you have more time to just say hello.”

They share of the hope found in Christ when opportunities arrive, but more often they recognize theirs is a ministry of serving and listening.

“It’s a matter of planting the seeds,” Moss said.

A brigadier general from the office of the Joint Chiefs of Staff had been down the day before to express thanks to all the volunteers.

“He said that his people had been strengthened spiritually and physically just by the fact that these folks were here,” said Elton Warren, a member of Nine Lakes Baptist Church in Federal Way, Wash., who was working at the site as part of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief’s national leadership team.

Warren also noted the unusual spirit of cooperation between the volunteers, who often gained strength from their shared faith in Christ. That was demonstrated under the serving tent during the noon meal Sept. 20. Outback provided steaks and bread, Salvation Army volunteers served up chicken barbecued by Tyson, while Southern Baptists provided corn, black-eyed peas and banana pudding. One volunteer in shorts checking on whether they needed to cook more corn turned out to be a U.S. Air Force colonel who worked at the Pentagon, giving half of each workday to the support effort.

“It makes you feel proud to be a Baptist and an American,” said Janice Tate, a volunteer from Concord, N.C. “I’m hearing people saying we’re one family.”

The beneficiaries of their labors also have been quick to express their appreciation.

“Thank you so much for coming,” said John Parsly, a firefighter from nearby Montgomery County, Md., who served on a decontamination unit. “It’s the greatest.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: SERVICE AT THE SCENE; UNITED EFFORT; and FOOD, FELLOWSHIP.

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  • James Dotson