FLOMATON, Ala. (BP)–Less than 48 hours after Hurricane Dennis came ashore on July 10, Southern Baptists had already begun preparing and distributing thousands of hot meals to the residents of such storm-affected areas as Escambia County, Ala.
By July 12, feeding operations were fully operational at the Little Escambia Baptist Church in Flomaton, Ala., where the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions deployed its disaster relief unit -– a 45-foot tractor-trailer housing a mobile kitchen.
A day later, 25 members of the Oklahoma Baptist Men arrived with a feeding unit, which they set up at the First Baptist Church in Atmore, Ala.
Cleanup and recovery teams bearing chainsaws began arriving on Monday and Tuesday from associations mostly in north Alabama, including St. Clair, Calhoun, Elmore, Etowah, Sand Mountain, Tennessee River and Elmore.
Volunteer John Cook, the “blue cap” (coordinator) for feeding operations at the Flomaton church, affirmed the disaster relief ministry as a vital means for sharing one’s faith.
“It’s why we’re here,” said Cook, a member of the Central Park Baptist Church in Birmingham, Ala. “We’ve got several evangelistic tracts. If Jesus had not been there to help us first, we wouldn’t be here to help these people.”
Pat Andrews, director of missions for the Escambia Baptist Association, noted the disaster relief cleanup and recovery teams have been configured for ministry and witnessing as well as for such hands-on tasks as tree removal.
“With every chainsaw team that goes out to work in the community to work on a street, every team has a trained chaplain who doesn’t cut wood or pull brush unless absolutely needed,” Andrews said. “The chaplain is there to work with, talk with and minister to people who are devastated by the disaster.”
In fact, it’s a standard practice of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief that feeding, cleanup and other relief efforts go hand-in-hand with evangelistic sharing, said Bob Oldham, a spokesman for the Oklahoma Baptist Men interviewed at the Atmore church.
“We’re passing out tracts with the meals,” Oldham said. “I pray that when people go home and eat the meal we prepare that they’ll read the tracts. We get every opportunity we can here to witness.”
Atmore residents expressed thanks for the ministry of the Oklahoma volunteers, said Thomas Parris, a junior at Bennington (Okla.) High School, who at age 16 was the youngest team member and on his first mission trip.
“They’ve been very grateful for what we’re doing,” said Parris as he stirred a large pot of ravioli for the Wednesday evening meal.
Asked if he had been surprised by anything on the trip, Parris – pointing out his Oklahoma ministry colleagues, many of them retired -– responded with a grin: “How fast these old folks can work. They can work hard. They’re pretty quick.”
Dewey Bondurant Jr., the mayor of Flomaton since October, said a “great service” is being provided by the disaster relief volunteers.
“Without the outside help like you all provide, it would be extremely tough for this community,” said Bondurant, chairman of the building and grounds committee at the First Baptist Church in Flomaton. “I think from a Christian standpoint it’s an excellent witnessing tool for people.”
On Wednesday, the Flomaton feeding site was visited by Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch and Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.
“We’re not only doing a good humanitarian thing here, we’re giving a cup of cold water –- and we’re underlining ‘in Jesus’ name’,” Welch observed. “That’s thrilling to me. I saw the tracts they’re sharing with these people. The chaplains are here sharing one-on-one, so that’s very encouraging.”
Later in the day, Lance and Welch visited nearby Robinsonville Baptist Church, the only Alabama Baptist congregation whose structure was known to have received serious damage from Hurricane Dennis.
They met with Mike McMorris, Robinsonville’s pastor, who expressed gratitude for the impending arrival of a mobile chapel from the State Board of Missions.
The mobile chapel ministry of the Alabama convention includes approximately 35 double-wide trailers, each capable of providing short-term space for worship and education for Alabama Baptist congregations in the aftermath of a disaster as well as for new missions and church starts.
“It will give us a safe place to meet and worship and be at ease,” said McMorris, noting the building sustained what appears to be serious structural and foundational damage from the winds of Hurricane Dennis.
During a tour of Robinsonville’s facilities, Lance and Welch prayed and visited with McMorris and other members of the church and disaster relief volunteers.
“We’re grateful for the generous giving of Southern Baptists -– in this case, Alabama Baptists -– through the Cooperative Program, which allows us to provide this mobile chapel ministry,” Lance stated. “We’re especially thankful when we’re able to assist a strong, missions-minded church like Robinsonville that continues its long practice of supporting the CP as well as associational missions.”
For Welch’s part, he expressed amazement at the apparent seamlessness of the disaster relief operation.
“The most interesting thing about this is how disaster relief is coming into its own,” Welch said. “These Alabama people and these Florida people have almost become every bit as proficient in dealing with these sort of disasters as northerners are at dealing with snow and ice.”
To contribute to Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief, send checks marked for “disaster relief” and payable to the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions at 2001 E. South Blvd., Montgomery, AL 36116. To contribute to Florida Baptist Disaster Relief, call toll-free 1-800-226-8584. Volunteers interested in helping in cleanup efforts should contact the adult missions volunteer coordinator at the North American Mission Board at www.NAMB.net. Keith Hinson is state missionary in communications services with the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions.