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Stateside pastors begin Virgin Island partnerships

RIDGECREST, N.C. (BP) — Pastors leading U.S. Virgin Island churches still recovering from devastating 2017 hurricanes are receiving new stateside ministry partners as another hurricane season threatens.

Seven pastors leading the only Southern Baptist congregations on St. Croix, St. John and St. Thomas are networking with stateside leaders as guests of the 2018 Black Church Leadership and Family Conference at Ridgecrest Conference Center through July 21.

“It has been the worst year, and yet it has been the best year,” Reginald Joseph, pastor of Cruz Bay Baptist Church on St. John, said at a July 17 networking event. “The hurricane [Maria] has done a number on us, but God has blessed us.”

Dennis Mitchell, executive director of the National African American Fellowship (NAAF) of nearly 4,000 Southern Baptist churches, told Baptist Press the partnering initiative is led cooperatively by NAAF, the Southern Baptist Convention Executive Committee and LifeWay Christian Resources Black Church Partnerships.

“We made a commitment [after hurricanes Irma and Maria] that we would adopt all of those seven churches,” Mitchell said. “Part of that adoption process was to commit ourselves to doing everything we could do to mobilize other African American churches to come in and partner with those guys.

“Ken Weathersby at the Executive Committee made a commitment to fund bringing the pastors and their wives over here, and then we [NAAF and LifeWay Black Church Partnerships] would provide some platforms and some venues to get them connected with potential partner churches,” Mitchell said. “It really was a collaboration.”

Weathersby, EC vice president for convention advancement, introduced the pastors on the opening night of the Ridgecrest conference July 16 and helped facilitate a ministry partner match-up after the July 17 evening worship service.

“These are some of the sharpest brothers on the island,” Weathersby said July 17, noting the pastors’ diligence and hard work. After the hurricanes, “they did not leave their posts.”

James Dixon, pastor of El-Bethel Baptist Church in Fort Washington, Md., exhorted stateside pastors in facilitating the July 17 meeting. Dixon leads his congregation on about 10 mission trips a year, he said, including local, national and international outreach.

“A church not doing missions needs to go out of business,” Dixon told the 50 stateside pastors and ministry leaders who attended the event. “What’s the point? Because that’s what it’s all about…. I really love missions, and it excites me when I see things going forward to meet the needs of people.”

Needs among island pastors are varied, including construction repairs, church vans, song books, sign language instruction and essential repairs to rainwater collection systems.

“The road ahead is a little steep, so we could use some prayer support,” said Andrew George, pastor of Trinity Baptist Church on St. Thomas. Hurricane Maria destroyed four of the five buildings at Bluewater Bible College that the church supports. Roof repairs are essential, George said, as roof gutters are used to collect rainwater for islanders’ use.

Lawrence Turnbull, pastor of St. Paul Missionary Baptist Church on St. Thomas, said the “love and concern” shown by stateside pastors increases his determination “to work more diligently for the Lord, understanding that I’m not alone in what I’m doing.”

Power has been restored and some homes have been repaired as St. Thomas continues to recover from the 2017 hurricanes, Turnbull said. But homeowners are plagued by many concurrent problems involved in recovery, he said, such as inadequate insurance, disreputable contractors and many residents’ departing the island for the States. Public school enrollment has dropped by 50 percent on the island, he said, evidencing residential flight.

Yet, the tragedy has had a beneficial spiritual component, Turnbull told BP.

“Our church in particular has grown since the storm as people realize the need for God more than before,” said Turnbull, whose membership of about 100 includes six new converts and seven new members who had already professed salvation.

“Overall, I think it has positively impacted the spiritual lives of the people,” he said. “We used to have a lot of crimes in the island and since the hurricanes, crimes have declined.”

None of his members relocated to the U.S. mainland. Although their homes were damaged, they were able to complete repairs.

“We were fortunate and we were blessed,” Turnbull said.

John Smith Jr., pastor of Shepherd’s Fold Community Church on St. Croix, invited church mission teams.

“We need you,” Smith said. Leading one of only two Southern Baptist congregations on St. Croix, Smith cited baptism figures of about 55 converts in the past two years.

U.S. Virgin Island churches cooperate with the Florida Baptist Convention (FBC). Jeffery Singletary, an FBC regional catalyst, mobilized three “Feeding the 5,000” evangelistic crusades to the islands in late 2017 and January.

Singletary described the new stateside involvement as phenomenal.

“It means that we are moving from conversation to action,” Singletary told BP. “And to see these [NAAF] pastors embrace fellow pastors who’ve experienced hardship that none of us would ever wish upon anyone to experience, and to not just open their hearts but their arms, and to embrace them and to say that you are part of us, and we are in the struggle with you — it means so much to me.”

In addition to Joseph, George, Turnbull and Smith, attending the conference are St. Thomas pastors Felix Durand of Ebenezer Memorial Baptist Church and Robert Nelson of Bovoni Baptist Church along with El John, pastor of Bible Baptist Church on St. Croix.

Lennox Zamore, who pastored Ebenezer Memorial Baptist prior to his pastorate at Exciting Central Tampa Baptist Church in Florida, also attended the meeting at the North Carolina conference center.