RICHMOND, Va. (BP)–At 8 p.m. on Sept. 6, a group of Nicaraguan believers and Southern Baptist volunteers from Florida and Georgia accompanied International Mission Board missionary Jim Palmer to a cemetery in Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, to bury the bodies of Hurricane Felix’s latest victims.
Palmer had the only working tractor in the region, so Puerto Cabezas’s mayor, Nancy Elizabeth Henriquez, asked him to dig a 70-foot trench for the mass burial. But by 10 p.m., the bodies had yet to arrive.
Palmer and Dan Titus, a member of Crestview Baptist Church in Marietta, Ga., made inquiries and was told that 14 bodies were being identified. Titus, a mortician, offered to wrap the bodies for burial.
Later that evening, Palmer walked down the line of bodies with a young Miskito Indian woman by his side. Although she had known her uncle and brother well in life, she became confused when trying to identify their bloated bodies.
“It’s never an easy thing to deal with death,” Palmer said. “I think the thing that affected me most was the anguish of the families, not being able to identify their loved ones. They thought it would be easy, but then they got there and couldn’t tell who they were.”
By 2 a.m., Palmer and the Nicaraguan believers and U.S. volunteers were able to bury the 14 bodies and hold a brief memorial service for those who came to the cemetery to identify their loved ones.
This late-night funeral was the first of many mass burials resulting from Hurricane Felix. Forty more bodies were buried the next morning. They are among the 130-plus 130 reported deaths resulting from the Sept. 4 hurricane that leveled buildings, leaving thousands homeless on Nicaragua’s east coast.
The volunteers had arrived in Puerto Cabezas on a regularly scheduled missions trip, representing Salem Baptist Church in Salem, Fla.; Rocksink Baptist Church in Old Town, Fla.; First Baptist Church and Crosspoint Baptist Fellowship; both in Perry, Fla.; and First Baptist Church in Perry, Ga.
They had considered returning to Managua, Nicaragua, to wait out the storm. But learning that Palmer and his wife Viola planned to stay in Puerto Cabezas, the team decided to weather the storm with them and provide immediate relief for the Miskito people once it had passed.
“Incarnational ministry means that you’re there with the people,” Palmer said, “… that you walk with them and you cry with them, you weep with them, and you rejoice with them. That’s where I believe real ministry takes place and relationships are built.”
By choosing to stay in Puerto Cabezas, the volunteers were able to clear roads for emergency vehicles; repair the Palmers’ roof, which was torn off by the storm; deliver clean drinking water to remote villages; as well as bury the bodies of hurricane victims.
Nearly 40 volunteers from various teams have been helping with disaster relief needs in the area, Palmer said. Many of these teams also were en route for scheduled projects with the Miskito people.
Titus is working alongside a group from University Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas, who had planned to do construction projects. Previously, Titus and his wife Amanda had spent two years as volunteers working in northeast Nicaragua.
A team from Heatherwood Baptist Church in Newnan, Ga., also had planned to do building projects but changed their plans to help with disaster relief. A Texas Baptist Men chainsaw crew is on-site, one of five crews the state disaster relief team plans to send to the area.
Two teams of Nicaraguan pastors are assessing damages in the hard-hit areas north of Puerto Cabezas. The extent of Hurricane Felix’s damages spans 25,000 square miles.
Hurricanes Felix and Dean ravaged much of Central America, and IMB missionaries and local believers they partner with are offering a wide variety of relief efforts in the name of Christ.
In Mexico, national believers combined IMB funds with those from another relief agency to distribute food to nearly 17,000 people affected by Hurricane Dean. They also distributed 10,000 liters of water in remote villages and enough plastic to cover damaged roofs on 8,000 houses.
Missionaries request continued prayer support for those who lost homes and loved ones in the storms.
Kristen Hiller is a writer and photographer with the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.