LYNCHBURG, Va. (BP) — The shelter that Thomas Road Baptist Church opened after crippling straight-line winds tore across the region June 29 became a place of spiritual refuge for some 70 people on July 4.
Less than 24 hours after the storm — a “dericho” in meteorological terms — had knocked out most of the power in Lynchburg, Va., Thomas Road opened a cooling center for the community and surrounding areas. A day later, it was expanded into a full-fledged relief center.
TRBC pastor Jonathan Falwell and his staff then decided to cancel a longtime local tradition, the church’s Celebrate America celebration, to focus on those in need.
Tom Frietas, Thomas Road’s pastor of family care, said Celebrate America is “known in this area … [as] what TRBC does near the 4th of July. When the storm hit, Jonathan [Falwell] knew this was a different scenario. We had people without power and basic necessities such as water. He recognized through the Lord’s leading that there was no way we could do [the annual event] because Lynchburg and the surrounding areas needed help.”
Although Thomas Road’s power was unaffected, tens of thousands of customers were without power for days, some as long as a week. Hundreds poured into the church throughout the week to cool off from 100-plus-degree temperatures, get free water and ice to take home, eat one of the three free meals per day, take advantage of the medical station or stay the night in the overnight shelter.
TRBC scaled back to a special church service on Wednesday, July 4, to honor America. Frietas said approximately 70 people of the 380 in attendance received Christ that night.
“Jonathan clearly gave a Gospel presentation and had those who wanted to respond come talk to the pastors,” Frietas said. “I dealt with a couple. It’s kind of a neat story.”
David and Jennifer accepted Christ that night and walked down the aisle to speak with Frietas — the same pastor who had made a connection with the couple earlier in the week.
“The husband could not stop weeping,” Frietas said. “He was really broken. We went through Scripture. I told them how their lives are completely different at this point — they are a new creation in Christ; they have been grafted into God’s family.”
The change, Frietas said, was immediate within David and Jennifer.
“It was interesting watching [David] after he gave his life to the Lord. He was staying at the shelter but he was running all over the place to help people get home,” Frietas said. “It was almost like a transformation taking place in his life. He went from being grateful for having a place to come for shelter, but then there was a new spirit in him after that Wednesday night service. He just had a spirit of service.”
Jennifer expressed her thanks to TRBC by tacking a sticky note onto a cardboard thank you sign that someone had set up.
“TRBC thank you so much! In all of this storm, I found God. Thank you!” the note read.
Leading Jennifer and David to Christ was a special moment for Frietas. It was “just a unique opportunity for me to really invest in a family,” he said.
“This was a family that kept coming back,” he added. “God just kept giving me opportunities.”
When TRBC opened the shelter the staff did not know “what would happen. We just knew there was a need,” Frietas said.
“God truly, truly blessed us. We had the opportunity to be the hands and feet of God to our community,” Frietas said. “It really didn’t have anything to do with TRBC. It had to do with God’s love.”
Brandon Pickett is director of media services for the SBC of Virginia; Amanda Sullivan is a writer for Innovative Faith Resources in Lynchburg, Va.