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‘True Christian compassion’ helping Asia tsunami victims overcome despair, fear

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Victims of the Dec. 26 tsunami are finding hope for the future because Christians are ministering to them in their distress -– ministry that will open the door to revival that so many believers have sought for so long, a minister who has returned from the region reports.

Steve Nelson, director of pastoral care for Tennessee’s Bledsoe Baptist Association, recently returned from 10 days in southern India where he helped a disaster relief team from Hindustan Bible Institute in one of the hundreds of tsunami-ravaged fishing villages along the coast.

The cost of his trip was underwritten by a ministry supporter, and $27,000 donated by churches, students and friends in Middle Tennessee was directed 100 percent to relief efforts in the affected area.

The people he met are utterly distraught, said Nelson, former director of hunger concerns with the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission and a member of First Baptist Church in Hendersonville, Tenn.

“These people have been fishermen for centuries. The ocean was their life. It provided their livelihood,” he said. “It was like their god. Then it turned on them.”

The villagers have moved inland — but not far, because of their attachment to the water, Nelson said. The grief and fear they feel is hard to imagine.

In one instance, as Nelson and other members of the disaster relief team sat talking with village leaders near the water, a larger than usual wave broke on the shore. The village leaders screamed and scattered in panic.

“After things calmed down, we asked them if we could pray for them for God’s peace.”

The team distributed relief supplies, trained grief counselors to help the traumatized villagers and put up tents for the displaced families — digging post holes in the sand by hand. A team from the Bible school also conducted a medical clinic.

They helped village leaders begin to dream about a kind of future for their people that they had never before envisioned.

“When we arrived, they listed their needs — boats, nets, housing, that sort of thing,” Nelson said. “But Bobby Gupta, the president of the Bible institute, asked them, ‘What would you like your village to look like in 10 years?'”

Though they were untrained men “who had never thought outside that box,” the village leaders discussed that question for more than two hours. Because they couldn’t write, they drew an outline of the village they would like to see.

“As one of them began to lay it out, more of them would get excited,” Nelson said. “They huddled around a board and sketched out streets, homes, a school, gymnasium, community center, a hospital, computer training center, a sewing school, and a section for drying fish.

“In any society like theirs where there is a caste system, there is a tendency on people’s part to accept their lot in life. These people for the first time had been challenged to think outside the box, to see something better for themselves,” Nelson said. “It was an honor to witness these humble men dream and capture a vision that I believe God was giving them. Dr. Gupta told them that [the Bible institute] can’t do all that, but God can, and that HBI was committed to them for the long haul.

“Many relief groups just show up, unload some aid and then leave,” Nelson said. “Our hope is to see them develop economically as they rebuild and that their lives will be improved from their former state.”

Toward that end, the school has launched a boat repair operation that will rebuild the village fishing fleets.

“The boats are made of fiberglass and have never needed repair before,” Nelson said. “The villagers don’t know how to do it. Neither do we, but we are determined to find out. We will learn to do it and then begin to train them.”

Experiencing such compassion over a long period of time will give people hope, as well as vision, Nelson said.

“The people are finding hope in the truth that someone cares and has their best interests at heart,” he said. “Please pray that these people may come to know that God is real and that He cares about them.”

Helping people in need not only helps them realize how much God loves them, it also helps God’s people experience the full life he holds in store for them, Nelson said.

“We have been praying for revival for many years, yet in many — if not most — churches, ministry to the poor is little more than a footnote,” he said. “Proverbs 21:13 says, ‘[W]hoever stops his ears to the cries of the poor shall also cry himself and not be heard.’ Our movement away from ministry to people in need is one of the great hindrances to the revival we are praying for.”

Practicing compassion for people who can do nothing in return, however, makes people more sensitive to God’s spirit, Nelson said.

“The churches that actively get involved in that type of mission work, whether at home or overseas, are excited and vibrant. God’s hand is clearly at work in them,” he said. “The one thing people need to know is that we are here to let Him love them through us. If we focus on that, then we will have a full and productive life — and we will win souls.”

In the genuinely Christian life, evangelism and social ministry go hand in hand, Nelson explained.

“Before Jesus gave the Great Commission to His disciples, He spent three years showing them how to open the door through ministry to people’s needs,” Nelson said. “Bearing a verbal witness to a closed door isn’t fruitful. You have to open the door, and social ministry opens the door.

“Here in the South, everyone says they love Jesus, but that doesn’t make you a Christian,” Nelson said. “When people experience true Christian compassion, they see the difference.”

    About the Author

  • Mark Kelly