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Steeple-less church reaches out to hurricane-damaged town

MILTON, Fla. (BP)–Holding a box of Saltine crackers under one arm while trying to keep her balance with a walking cane, Katherine Shiver didn’t notice the small trickle of blood dripping from the top of her vein-lined hand.

The elderly woman had stopped by First Baptist Church in Milton, Fla., looking for food and other necessities Sept. 23, a week after Category 3 Hurricane Ivan tore through the Gulf Coast.

Focused on receiving supplies for two families she said were still without electricity and the means to purchase necessities, the weary woman looked surprised when Yvonne Musselwhite gently placed a bandage on the wound she had barely noticed.

“Thank you,” Shiver smiled. “Thank you so much.”

At First Baptist Church, Musselwhite had joined her husband, Bobby, director of missions for the Santa Rosa Baptist Association, in assisting their home church that serves as a command center for Florida Baptist Disaster Relief operations in area hit hard by Hurricane Ivan, where power was restored to only 60 percent of the homes as of Sept. 23.

The church has opened its doors to city crews, firemen, workers and relief crews from states such as Tennessee, Georgia, Florida and Louisiana, who are providing emergency, chainsaw and clean-up crews in the rural area outside of Pensacola. Volunteers are sleeping in the gym, Sunday School rooms, motor homes, and travel trailers. A member of First Baptist makes sure the workers eat home-cooked meals.

As of Sept. 25, feeding units were nearby at First Baptist Church in Navarre, Fla., and at Emmanual Baptist Church in Pace to help provide meals to local residents affected by the storm.

Bobby Musselwhite told the Florida Baptist Witness his biggest challenge is helping to coordinate where resources go. He and the town’s mayor, Guy Thompson, also a member of the church, have worked together to prioritize the needs of the residents for assistance.

“The mayor here is extremely helpful,” Musselwhite said.

According to Musselwhite, who serves about 40 churches in the association, a large surge of water washed over a wooded area and flooded East Side Baptist Church in Milton.

At East Side, Pastor Jim Liberacki said there were 12 people in the church’s sanctuary the night of the storm when at about 4 a.m. he laid down to get some rest, thinking the worst had passed. About 10 minutes later someone noticed some water in the church.

“[S]omeone opened the door a little bit and it was about a foot deep right at that point,” said Liberacki, who recalled saying: “We got trouble.”

A few seconds later, someone opened the front doors of the church and about two and a half feet of water gushed in. Thankfully, the fire department appeared and rescued everyone.

Four cars, in addition to a 2003 Anniversary Edition Harley Davidson, were destroyed in the parking lot. The Harley belonged to Liberacki, who also is president of the Santa Rosa Interfaith Jail Ministry. The church facility was overtaken in moments, with about four feet of water flipping a piano in the music room and scattering pews like dominoes.

“But in the midst of the storm, and the hardest part, God sent someone to help us out,” said Liberacki, who has been at the church nearly a year. “God sure blessed us through the midst of the storm.”

On Sunday morning, Sept. 19, the congregation held a service in the church’s carport. Liberacki said a little girl — one of several children the fireman carried out — “raised her hand for testimony and said, ‘A fireman saved me.’”

Liberacki has so far refused help to remove the church’s soggy interior carpets and furnishings, and instead asked his church members to take care of their homes and families.

“I’m not worried, but I know things are molding,” he said. “Worry is not a part of my game. No one had electricity … so everyone needed to take care of their own trees and everything and make sure that they were situated.”

His instructions accompanied his preaching on Matthew and Nehemiah in weeks prior to the hurricane.

“We are to seek the kingdom of God first and His righteousness and all these things will be added,” Liberacki said. “We cannot serve God and mammon. We cannot serve God and wealth or riches.

“We’re safe, our soul’s safe and even if we had lost our earthly life, we’d have gone home to be with Him … So, either way, we couldn’t come out bad.”

Losing the Harley doesn’t faze Liberacki.

“The motorcycle doesn’t matter to me at all,” he said. “If God doesn’t want me to have it it’s gone. It was given to me as a gift for ministry and now it’s been taken away. It doesn’t matter — it’s just a motorcycle.”

Down the road a bit at First Baptist Church in Bagdad, Sandra Yager, the wife of bi-vocational pastor David Yager, told the Florida Baptist Witness the church has joined together with the First Assembly of God Church next door to distribute commodities supplied by FEMA.

The church’s steeple was blown off during Ivan and is still on the lawn outside the sanctuary doors; hundreds of roof tiles are scattered around the church yard. Still, Yager said the church would prefer to reach out to the community rather than spend time on the few things that eventually will be repaired.

“It doesn’t matter about the building — it matters about the people you are caring about outside the church,” Yager said. “This is the true grit of the church. People are either going to get involved or they are going to back up and not want to get involved and this is where your church really comes out.”

Elsewhere, Richard Weekley and his wife, Glenda, were trying to salvage what was left of 44 years’ worth of belongings from their home, which had been flooded by 5-6 feet of water. Weekley said he evacuated his wife and 85-year-old parents just in time.

“I felt like the Lord grabbed me on my shoulders,” Weekley said, recalling a feeling he had the minute he heard on the news that a 57-foot wave had been measured off of the coast in Pensacola. “I said, ‘If we want to live, we had better go.’”

Sure enough, Weekley later learned that storm waters were 8-9 feet deep around his home and a neighbor with a three-month-old baby had to wait to be rescued from the roof of his home.

Inside the house a water line marked the once white walls. Photograph albums were laid out to dry on drenched furniture and electronic equipment and VCR tapes were piled in heaps on the floor where the floorboards weren’t threatening to give way.

In the kitchen, youth from First Baptist Church in Milton handled the household china gingerly, careful not to break what could be saved from the ruins. In the sewing room, Glenda Weekley clutched at soggy bolts of material pulled out of the cupboards.

“I got my sewing machine and my brand new embroidery,” she whispered, eyes filling with tears.

She said her family’s situation has made her and other church members determined to begin a disaster relief unit in their church.

“It just makes me ashamed of all the times that people have had trouble and I haven’t been there to help and it makes me resolve to help more in the future,” she said. “It’s a lesson — you have to experience some things to know.”

Richard Weekley said the house was completely ruined and would be condemned, but that the family’s needs have been provided by their network of friends from the church.

“We don’t have any complaints, I’m telling you,” he said, adding that the family’s clothes were being washed by church members. “It’s a blessing.”

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  • Joni B. Hannigan