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Southern Baptists respond to wildfires with hot meals & hugs

DENVER (BP)–Fire season came early to drought-stricken Colorado this year, sparking major wildfires across the state in recent weeks. As towns and communities have been thrust into crisis, Southern Baptists have been on hand to offer help. From hot meals to hugs, Baptists from Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas have joined with Coloradoans to minister through disaster relief efforts.

In communities across Colorado, the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army have been coordinating disaster relief efforts for evacuees, firefighters and others involved in the crises. And in Canon City, Castle Rock, Monument and Bayfield, Southern Baptists from other states have joined forces with the relief agencies and local churches to meet needs and minister.

As Southern Baptists work under the auspices of the American Red Cross or the Salvation Army, their distinctive yellow hats and the yellow Southern Baptist Disaster Relief logo have become recognizable. Though their efforts are mainly in cooking and meal preparation, the “official” look of the Southern Baptist teams opens doors for ministry.

“People will approach us and ask for directions or for information,” said Maxine Freeman of Arkansas. “And we get to help them.”

“It’s not a competition with the other agencies,” said Rusty Lynn, also from Arkansas, describing their unique ministry role. “Instead, it’s a big team effort.”

That cooperative spirit has defined Southern Baptists’ disaster relief efforts for years. The convention is well-known to relief agencies as having the resources and the people to respond quickly in times of crisis.

When the fires erupted in Colorado, both the Red Cross and the Salvation Army contacted the North American Mission Board’s disaster relief office in Alpharetta, Ga., to request Southern Baptist response teams. Not only would hundreds of firefighters be converging on Colorado’s forests, but also the number of evacuees forced to leave their homes could reach into the thousands. The need for hot meals would overwhelm local resources if help wasn’t called in from elsewhere.

The NAMB office, in turn, contacted the Baptist state conventions in Texas, Oklahoma and Arkansas. Each of those states then activated a feeding unit from within their state. Individuals who have been trained and certified in Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts were called and teams were assembled. Within hours of the initial phone calls from relief agencies, Southern Baptists were on the road to Colorado.

At the height of recent efforts, Southern Baptists prepared about 4,000 meals a day at three different locations around Colorado. The ministry provided hot meals for evacuees, firefighters, Forest Service workers, police and others involved.

On June 8, a group of Texas Baptists arrived in Canon City to assist with efforts relating to the Iron Mountain fire. The Top O’ Texas disaster relief unit set up its operation at First Baptist Church of Canon City and served three meals a day to victims of that fire.

“They were able to minister to those who have lost basically everything — their clothes, their house, their vehicles,” FBC pastor Morgan Kerr said. “They were able to provide basic needs for them.”

Just a few days later, as the Iron Mountain fire was brought under control and the team wrapped up operations in Canon City, the Hayman Fire erupted, almost overnight. The Texas team was transferred to Castle Rock and began serving about 1,500 meals a day at that fire’s command center.

The Top O’ Texas team arrived with a large trailer containing food, supplies and a self-supporting kitchen.

“We always travel with enough food for 10,000 meals,” said Tim Willis of the Texas team. “At this location, the Salvation Army is providing the food and we’re providing the people power to prepare the meals.”

The team has the capability of providing 20,000 meals per day and could operate in locations without electricity or running water, Willis said.

Most of the team members from Texas were able to make the trip to Colorado on short notice.

“Plains, Texas, is a farming community,” Willis said. “So most of our team is self-employed, although some of them did use vacation to come to Colorado.”

Some of the team members also were retired, but all of them worked long hours ministering in Colorado.

“We arrive on site at 2:00 a.m. to prepare breakfast and make sack lunches,” said Kim Willis, Tim’s wife. For the Willises, it was a family affair. Their daughter Kayla also made the trip to serve in Colorado.

Just down the road a few miles, in the parking lot of Monument Hill Church, SBC, in Monument, Colo., a 13-member disaster relief team from Oklahoma arrived on June 15 to meet the growing needs for help as the Hayman Fire continued to grow.

At the height of the Hayman Fire, efforts to fight the blaze were being coordinated through three major command posts because of the size of the fire. The Oklahomans’ operation in Monument provided a central location near all three of the fire’s command posts and near many of the evacuees.

Working under the direction of the American Red Cross, the team provided about 1,000 meals a day for firefighters and other officials working near the front lines of the fire. The team prepared the meals from their mobile kitchen in the parking lot of the Monument church and the Red Cross delivered the meals to command posts near the fire.

“We plan the meals and the Red Cross provides the food for us,” said Gene Jones, leader of the Oklahoma team.

Though the team is made up of volunteers from varying walks of life, and most only got a very short notice before leaving for Colorado, they were organized and ready to begin working wherever they were assigned.

“We have a head cook and everyone else pitches in and helps with the meals,” said Mark Smith, a former Colorado pastor who’s now living in Oklahoma. “And when the Red Cross returns with the empty containers, we all help clean those up and it’s time to do it all over again.”

Though the Hayman Fire was near containment in late June, other fires continued to blaze across Colorado.

In southwestern Colorado, the Missionary Ridge fire forced thousands to evacuate near Durango and Bayfield. The Red Cross established a shelter and relief center at Bayfield High School and a disaster relief team from the Red River Baptist Association in southern Arkansas arrived on June 22 to assist.

Like the teams from Texas and Oklahoma, the Arkansas team is a self-supporting unit.

“It’s one of our smaller units,” said Rusty Lynn, leader of the Arkansas team. “Our capacity is about 7,000 meals per day.”

The team didn’t need to cook exclusively from their trailer, though. The high school offered the use of its commercial kitchen, since school was out for the summer.

“The people at Bayfield High School, the superintendent, they’ve all been great to work with,” Lynn said. “They let us use their kitchen and their food. Local restaurants have also been supplying food.”

The team prepared about 1,000 meals a day. The school provided an ideal situation not only for cooking, but for one-on-one ministry as well.

“The greatest thing about this location is making contact with people,” Lynn said. “We get to sleep and shower in the same building as the evacuees. We get to know them.”

“We ask them how they’re doing and they start crying,” team member Maxine Freeman said. “We are their shoulder to cry on.

“We get to know the local pastors who stop by to help,” she added. “We get to make all kinds of contacts and then tell the local pastors about them.”

“We’re missionaries,” Lynn said. “We’re here to meet the basic needs of people and allow God to let us minister to these people.”

As leader of the group, Lynn not only relates to the local Red Cross officials, but also makes assignments for his team.

“We need people to wash, cook, work the serving lines, and serve as mechanic, and chaplain,” he said. “So when we arrived here, I made a roster. And really, everybody just helps each other.”

A unique aspect of the team, Lynn said, is the efficiency with which they served side by side, though some of them hadn’t even met until the trip.

“Of the 15 people on our team,” he said, “I’ve only worked with two of them before.”

Not only are the team members making new friends from within the team, but also among the other relief workers, evacuees and others at the high school.

“This ministry gives you a greater chance to witness to people,” Lynn said. “People want to talk because God is working in their lives.”

For Freeman, or “Ma,” as she’s called by her team members, ministering to hurting people has taken on new meaning.

“My husband passed away 16 months ago,” she said. “A good friend died recently. And another good friend who worked in disaster relief also passed away recently.

“I love mixing with these people in crisis because they’re hurting,” she said. “They need a hug, and I’m a good hugger!”

Local Southern Baptists are grateful for the assistance provided by the out of state teams.

“They work like an army, and with no griping or complaining,” observed James Newman, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bayfield. “They’ve been trained and certified. It’s quite an accomplishment to wear that yellow hat.”

Newman recently completed the disaster relief training himself. The Colorado Baptist General Convention and NAMB co-sponsored the training May 31 and June 1 in Pueblo, Colo.

“I went to the disaster relief training and told them how badly we need a portable disaster relief unit and trained people in the southwest corner of the state,” Newman recounted. About two weeks later, he was involved firsthand in disaster relief ministry as the Missionary Ridge fire burned.

For churches like First Baptist of Bayfield, everyone feels the impact of the fires. Newman said the fires are affecting every aspect of the economy.

“We have a rancher who just signed a contract for grazing, but that won’t happen now,” he said. “Some of our people work in real estate, but no deals are being closed right now. No insurance is being given.

“Another guy works in construction but his area has been evacuated and closed,” he said.

“But we’re doing well,” Newman added. “Sometimes we need something like this to get our attention.”

Even with many church members affected by evacuations, Colorado’s Southern Baptists are responding to the ministry opportunities made available by the crisis.

“When the initial call was given, we had more volunteers from our church than evacuees,” Newman said.

When the team from Arkansas arrived, church members at Bayfield offered to open their homes to the team. Many of the church members have taken in evacuees.

In nearby Durango, at the main command post for the Missionary Ridge fire, Southern Baptists were among the first to respond and offer help.

Jerry Brush, bivocational pastor of Florida Baptist Church, and Jerry Graham, pastor of First Southern Baptist Church, have been in charge of all of the volunteer coordination at the command post.

“We’ve been working at the firefighter aid station, collecting socks, underwear, lip balm, all kinds of supplies and distributing them to the firefighters,” Brush said.

“We have Bibles on hand and have already given away 30 Spanish Bibles and ordered more,” he added.

In addition to pastoring, Brush is a Spanish teacher at Bayfield High School. His bilingual skills have opened many opportunities to share the gospel since many of the firefighters are Spanish-speaking.

“Just last week, my wife and I went to Bayfield to help set up a new firefighters’ camp,” he said.

Though no evacuees have come from Florida Baptist, Brush said they’ve had many volunteers from the congregation.

Charlie Ellisor, a church planter in Durango, also was called on by Graham to help as the logistics coordinator to bring more coordination to the volunteers. In addition to his duties at the command post and a distribution warehouse, he’s also found time to lead firefighters in worship. And like so many others near Durango, he and his family have been evacuees.

“We had to leave our house twice,” he said. “The fire got within a mile of our place.”

Already, the fire has destroyed the home of one church member and others are threatened.

“We keep things like the computer and changes of clothes in the car so that we’re ready to go again at any time,” he said.

Even as one who’s providing relief and bringing a message of hope to others, Ellisor admits to feelings of weakness from time to time.

“It’s tough, but fortunately, I’ve been a part of disasters before,” he said. “I grew up on the Gulf Coast and was a firefighter there. I’ve worked in disaster relief following hurricanes. That experience helps you when you face the long hours, lack of sleep and lack of rest.”

Ellisor and so many others involved in Southern Baptist disaster relief efforts echo the same sentiments expressed by Kim Willis of the Texas team, “It’s a lot of long hours, but it’s a tired that feels good.”
(BP) photos posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo titles: CHICKEN AND DUMPLINGS, FRONT-LINES PASTOR, FAMILY’S THANKS, KIDS’ CURIOSITY, STIRRING THE POT, CLEAN FINISH and TO THE FRONT.

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  • Allen Spencer