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Thousands of volunteers needed for Central American relief effort

ATLANTA (BP)–Thousands of Southern Baptists will be asked to serve as volunteers over the next two years in four countries of Central America devastated by Hurricane Mitch last fall. Teams will be involved in such efforts as repairing contaminated wells, helping reestablish agriculture and building homes, churches and bridges. The overall goal is to use relief as a way to reach people with the gospel and start new churches.
A group of disaster relief and volunteer leaders from the International Mission Board, North American Mission Board and state conventions met in Atlanta Jan. 13-14 to work out the details of the massive mobilization, which targets Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
“Most of this response will be conducted by on-site coordinators placed in those countries by state conventions,” said Mickey Caison, national coordinator for Southern Baptist disaster relief and an adult volunteer mobilization associate for the North American Mission Board. “Missionaries will not be heavily involved in most of what we’re doing. They will give oversight and vision to it but will not be involved in the day-to-day operations for many of these things.”
By the close of the meeting, Texas, Tennessee, North Carolina, Georgia and California had committed to being “coordinating states” with responsibilities for one of the 10 regions in the area, Caison said. Disaster relief and volunteer partnership leaders with additional eight states, some of which will partner with others to cover one of the regions, are currently evaluating their roles in the effort, Caison said.
Prospective volunteers can contact their state convention offices or the IMB’s Volunteers in Missions department at (804) 219-1495.
The strategy grew out of a visit to the region in December by a six-member assessment team that included Caison, IMB representatives and disaster relief leaders from several state conventions.
“Missionaries and Baptist partners in the countries are still developing projects — how many homes, how many churches, those kinds of things are still being done,” Caison said. “The assessment team could not get to parts of the countries because roads and bridges are still out. What happened is in some cases the Baptist pastors down there waded rivers and rode tubes across rivers to get to meet with us.”
In its report, the team quoted a Honduran pastor who stated, “We don’t call it a disaster anymore, we call it an opportunity for ministry.”
“The real issue for Baptists in Central America is how to utilize this window of opportunity to impact ‘lostness’ and facilitate church-planting movements,” the report states.
The late October hurricane dumped more rain on Central America than it would normally receive in seven months of its rainy season, according to the report. More than 10,000 people have been confirmed dead, with another 13,000 missing. About 40 percent of the crops were destroyed, and 311 bridges destroyed. Damages in Honduras alone have been estimated at $6 billion.
The Southern Baptist response to date has included volunteer teams providing emergency shelter for families, eight water purification units provided by both the International Mission Board and state conventions, and emergency feeding units. More than 300 volunteers in 50 teams had participated in relief efforts as of late December, according to the report.
Approximately $500,000 in relief funding has been provided by Southern Baptists through the IMB to date. Also, dozens of shipping containers and dozens of air-freight palettes of food, clothing and supplies have been sent to victims by the IMB, churches and associations across the United States.
Caison said long-term relief efforts will focus on environmental health issues such as wells and latrines; community health issues such as preventive and curative medicine; development efforts aimed at rebuilding homes, churches, bridges and other structures; and agricultural projects.
The goal is to “focus on the ‘people’ and not just on the ‘needs,'” according to the report.
“Building houses, bridges, latrines and digging wells should not distract from ministering to people, but provide the opportunity to share God’s redeeming love with them,” the report states. “It is not enough to just build ‘houses’ but efforts should be made to contribute to the building of ‘homes.’ This window of opportunity allows the church to impact the lives of people who desperately need hope and direction in the midst of despair and confusion.”
Relief and development efforts also will be focused “toward the community and not toward the church,” the report states. “These ministries allow the church to be directed outward and not inward.”
Such efforts might include establishing home Bible studies and church starts in communities where development and relief efforts can stimulate evangelism, discipleship and church planting.
The effort is just the latest in a five-year history of cooperation between Southern Baptist disaster relief forces — based in state conventions and coordinated nationally by NAMB — and the IMB. Cooperative efforts last year included testing of wells after massive flooding in Bangladesh and consultation with IMB officials in several other disaster-affected areas.

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  • James Dotson