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Tsunami disaster relief volunteers preparing for challenges

DALLAS (BP)–When South Carolina disaster relief volunteers were forced to delay a trip to Asia last fall until early January, they assumed God would be at work regardless of the change. After the Dec. 26 tsunamis killed tens of thousands around the Indian Ocean, Judy Fulmer of Prosperity, S.C., said, “We knew … that’s why God changed our plans.”

She and her husband, Eddie, a layman who serves on the disaster relief task force for South Carolina Baptist Convention, will join three International Mission Board representatives and two state convention staffers helping to assess how Southern Baptists can provide ongoing relief in the tsunami-devastated region.

The Fulmers are among an array of trained Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers from across the country preparing to help meet the overwhelming needs of tsunami victims and survivors in southern Asia.

“This trip was planned for months,” Cliff Satterwhite, South Carolina Baptists’ disaster relief director, told Baptist Press. Several years ago South Carolina Southern Baptists began exploring the possibility of a partnership with an entire region of the world, moving well beyond a more typical relationship with a particular country. Included among the 1.3 billion people of South Asia are India and Sri Lanka -– two of the countries hardest-hit by the tsunamis.

“It’s ironic that my responsibility was to go to Bangladesh and people were flying in to talk about strategic planning for disasters.” Satterwhite said. “I always tell folks we have to be flexible, so now we’re going into Calcutta…. God opened the door for us to be in South Asia anyway.”

The South Carolina assessment team — one of 17 teams traveling to the areas as a part of the state’s three-year partnership launched this year — will touch base with contacts developed through more than a decade of ministry by Southern Baptists in the region.

“We’re trying to work through a process and be there for the long-term,” Satterwhite said. “The news media will leave in the next couple of weeks, but we’ll try to work with a couple of strong churches doing ministry now in the area.”

State Baptist convention disaster relief directors are working with the International Mission Board to coordinate the volunteer response for the tsunami crisis. The North American Mission Board helps field requests for assistance based on their experience in coordinating state volunteers responding to national disasters. Based on reports from IMB representatives already working in southern Asia and assessment by teams who are en route, the two boards will coordinate the work of volunteers in two-week stints over the next three to four months.

“I think we’re going to see things that we’ve never seen before — totally different,” said Eddie Fulmer, who has international experience offering relief to Palestinians and Iraqis. “Every time I’ve gone on a disaster relief trip — whether internationally or in the States — it was always different.”

Marcia Knox, who works with Tennessee Baptist disaster relief, said the response to last year’s hurricanes in the Southeastern United States “was kind of a y’all come thing.” For the Asian tsunamis, she said, “That’s not the way this relief effort is operating.”

Tennessee Baptists maintain a database with the names of more than 2,500 volunteers. “We can search to pull out basic groups of people with certain expertise,” said Mike Overcash, volunteer off-site coordinator for the state convention. At one time, he said, Tennessee Baptist relief volunteers were known for their feeding teams, but they’ve become more diverse over the years, he said, allowing them to respond to almost any need.

“This is going to be a very grueling, physically tough operation for awhile,” Overcash said. “There are not many creature comforts.” Though he volunteered for disaster relief in Florida and the Carolinas, in addition to serving a two-year Army hitch in Southeast Asia, Overcash said there’s no comparison to what the tsunami relief teams will encounter.

“Most people who have not been involved in the military have no idea what battlefield devastation looks like. The people who go in the first groups will find bodies everywhere,” Overcash said, adding that special training efforts are made to address that concern. “These are people in need and we want to help as much as we can. It’s an old story — because Christ is a part of our life, we want to share and meet needs.”

While those participating in the earliest stage have much-needed training in medical aid, water purification or counseling, Fulmer still offers advice. “Be careful of having preconceptions,” he tells them, knowing that flexibility is critical. He’s been asking God to open the right doors since “He knows where He wants us to be.” Safety is another concern due to the potential for disease. “The stuff we’ll be doing is dangerous. Patience will needed by volunteers as well as the hurting people whom they’ll serve,” he said.

Jim Richardson, disaster relief director for the Georgia Baptist Convention, noted, “This is just the unknown — not knowing what you’re going to have when you get there.” Richardson has been part of relief efforts in Kosovo, Iran, Guatemala and France, but he expects his upcoming trip to South Asia to be worse than anything he’s ever seen. “We’ve been getting indications that no one has been into the area we’re going into.”

Accompanying Richardson will be a doctor and two EMTs. “These guys have encountered a lot of different things and they’re very well equipped,” he said of his team. Living in tents amidst a trauma area, Richards said, “The teams need to be spiritually aware of opportunities and emotionally prepared for what they’re going to encounter.”

“I’ve got my bags packed,” stated Doug Baxley of Blackshear, Ga., a paramedic who will be a part of the first relief team from the state to leave. He knows that his medical training provides an open door to get into areas where others cannot go. “God’s blessed me with multiple talents. I can fix about anything — and that has proven to be valuable,” Baxley acknowledged.

Baxley knew as a child that God had called him to serve others through missions. “Ever since I was a Sunbeam I felt the Lord calling me to be a missionary. “I never dreamed it would be on a volunteer basis,” he added, expressing appreciation for his employer — “a Christian boss who is behind me 100 percent. He’d be mad if I didn’t volunteer and provides me the time off when he can.”

The Georgia layman is asking fellow Christians to pray that volunteers will not be overwhelmed by what they see. “It’s going to be so graphic, so violent that I pray the Lord will just give me patience like never before to keep a good spirit, keep smiling and keep my eyes on Him.” Baxley said he knows that sounds like a pat answer when asked about his concerns, adding, “That’s going to be my biggest need — keeping me in tune with Him and not overcome by the situation.”

Baxley prays that God will remove spiritual blindness among those he will serve who do not share his faith. “I want them to see the reason we’re coming. We’re not condemning their religion, practices or belief. We don’t think we’re better than them. They need our help and we’re able to do that.”

While volunteering in Iran last year, Baxley missed the birth of his grandson and now he’s likely to miss the boy’s first birthday while serving in South Asia. And yet he’s confident of God’s call to help people living in such desperate conditions. “Every day to the next day is survival for them,” he said. “I’ve seen some of that and I know how I was able to help in the past.”

Having two women as part of an early assessment team is likely to prove helpful in Muslim countries, Judy Fulmer said. “In a lot of places men can’t talk with women,” she explained, adding that women typically have a more compassionate nature that is helpful in disaster relief.

Even after initial relief efforts wind down, Knox expects many volunteers and local churches will continue to maintain relationships with people in the countries they assist. “What I’ve seen in partnership missions is that people volunteer, go over and build relationships with churches in the areas,” she observed. “The partnership may end, but Tennessee Baptists still contact them and keep up.”

In addition to her own experiences of providing relief overseas and stateside, Knox enjoys hearing reports of God at work. “Disaster relief volunteers call back with their stories and I can hear those emotions over the phone, knowing God worked in their lives that day. That’s refreshing. It’s inspirational.”

Tennessee Baptist disaster relief director Tim Bearden said conditions in the South Asian countries pose a key challenge, with roads and power outages and fuel and water shortages. Transportation into the countries also is an obstacle, with no plane seats available on the 38-hour flights for at least five weeks. With no support system available once in the country, Bearden said volunteers are asked to be self-contained with sleeping bags and backpacks.

Seventy percent of the population of Sri Lanka lived on the coast, Satterwhite said, describing plans to repair and build boats for local residents so they can return to their livelihood of fishing. “We want to help alleviate hurting and suffering and show them there is a way, even when lives and jobs are lost. As Christians, we know God has promised us He will be with us.”

Tennessee Baptist Steve Nelson of Gallatin is traveling to an area on the coast of India where the Bledsoe Baptist Association has a longtime relationship with Hindustan Bible Institute in Chennai. He leaves Jan. 10 to train volunteers in crisis counseling and deliver contributions earmarked for the purchase of tents to house displaced residents.

“The scope of this tragedy is certainly larger than anything most of us have ever experienced,” Nelson told Baptist Press. “But people are people and when they’ve been traumatized a lot of them need to tell their stories.” Nelson is anxious to be available to hear them share and prepare others to listen as well.

Having served nearly eight years as director of hunger concerns for the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, Nelson visited many different areas affected by war, earthquakes and other disasters. “We know from Scripture that there will always be situations like this. We are to minister to our neighbors. The Word is clear that ‘he that has mercy on the poor, happy is he.’”

Repeating a familiar precept, Nelson said, “People don’t care what you know until they know that you care. If they’re hurting and hungry, they’re not going to hear what you say unless you care about them.” After issuing a challenge to raise support for his travel and $10,000 to provide 400 tents, Nelson is thrilled by the quick response. “None of us can fix the problems being faced by the Asian people,” he said, “but we can each do something.”

Sam Porter, disaster relief director for the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma, said he expects to carry in his own food along with a two-man pup tent and satellite phone as part of a team of Oklahoma and Georgia volunteers heading to one of the hardest-hit areas.

“We are hoping to set up clinics in the areas most affected,” Porter told Baptist Press. “It might be in a mosque or a vacant building or under a tent.” Arriving two weeks after the tsunami hit, Porter knows they’ll be dealing with people who have endured broken bones and extensive infection. “A lot of Baptist medical people will be able to put their skills and calling to use in the coming months,” he predicted.

Porter said the Oklahoma-Georgia team will “have to be led of God to do what we’re doing. I thank the Lord for their training, expertise and willingness to use it to make eternal impact on people’s lives.”

Southern Baptists have had a presence in that area of the world for a long time, Porter reminded — in some cases for over a century. “Because of the faithfulness of people giving to missions, we had personnel on the ground when it hit. Almost before the water rushed back out to the sea, they were on the job ministering and meeting the needs of people.”

Within days of the initial earthquake, the International Mission Board allocated money that IMB representatives used to purchase needed supplies before price-gouging started, Porter said. “That’s because of the Cooperative Program and the faithfulness of people to give to that. While others are trying to figure out how to get there, we were there and technology allowed the IMB to push a button and wire the money.”

Among efforts underway in various other states:

— Arkansas Baptists are recruiting trained medical personnel and crisis chaplains for immediate needs and rebuilding teams for later work. They are also receiving funds to provide supplies and support volunteer costs.

— Teams of Baptist Men from Texas and North Carolina left the first week of January to provide water purification and meal preparation, with more teams from those states following in the coming weeks.

— Disaster relief volunteers from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention stand ready for medical and water purification assignments. “I’ve had unsolicited calls with five individuals who are packed and ready to go,” said Bill Davenport, SBTC consultant for disaster relief. “Their passports and shots are in order and they’re ready.” He’s contacting local Baptist associations to recruit additional volunteers who will join him the effort within the next few months.

Satterwhite is confident that adequate funding will be available for those who volunteer in disaster relief. “Money follows mission,” he said. “If there’s a mission there, you don’t worry about money. It’s going to come.”

Volunteers like Fulmer continue to serve time after time, whatever the circumstances. “God causes me to go back,” she said of her desire to be a part of international disaster relief. “It’s always about Him, never about us.”

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  • Tammi Reed Ledbetter