BARRE, Vt. (BP)–At a flood-damaged Vermont home, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief assessors offered the residents a win-win solution: They would evaluate the home and have a cleanup crew come work for free.
“[T]he people said, ‘No, we don’t want anything to do with religion,'” recounted Terry Dorsett, director of missions for the Green Mountain Baptist Association.
The assessors, all seasoned disaster relief workers, had never been rejected before.
“The [people] that have a tender heart, they’re open to the Lord and their lives are being transformed, and those that don’t … they’re still just as hard,” Dorsett said.
Ministry in Vermont has been anything but simple since Hurricane Irene turned mountain rivers and streams into raging torrents that flooded towns and villages in late August. Roads and bridges were washed out, isolating entire communities.
While Southern Baptist Disaster Relief was gearing up, local churches stepped in with immediate relief.
“It was a week that we were kind of on our own,” Dorsett said. “And I don’t know that Vermont Baptists have ever dealt with a challenge of this magnitude … . And yet they rose to the challenge. They did it.”
New Life Community Church in Northfield, with about 50 members, saw that more than 50 nearby homes were flooded after the rains. The church called the Baptist Convention of New England (BCNE) for support, and by the week’s end, a disaster relief trailer arrived with a specialist who taught church members how to mud-out homes and share Jesus during the cleanup.
Since then, New Life has been cleaning homes, preparing meals and sharing the Gospel. The church even canceled its services one Sunday to focus on flood relief.
“Our community needed us to BE the church,” Trey Cates, pastor of New Life, told Baptist Press in an email, “and our church members were blessed as they worked hard to clean out mud-filled basements, tear out water-soaked sheet-rock and insulation, and pull up layer upon layer of saturated flooring.”
With a weak economy, other disasters around the country and fatigue from a particularly busy year, SBDR resources have been stretched thin; teams are struggling to meet the demand for relief work in Vermont. Currently, mud-out teams from Massachusetts, Vermont and Alabama are working in Montpelier; mud-out teams from South Carolina and Maine are in Jacksonville; and a New Hampshire mud-out unit is working in North Bennington. A Kentucky communication team is working in Jacksonville, and a Vermont shower/laundry unit is at work in Northfield.
Not only is it hard getting enough mud-out teams for flooded homes (88 homes currently are awaiting work), but simply restocking supplies can be difficult.
“We have a 45-minute, hour drive to go to a Home Depot and get those kinds of supplies if we run out of garbage bags or work gloves or masks,” Dorsett said.
On days when he can only provide help for a fraction of the people who need it, Dorsett seeks the Lord’s direction about who to aid.
“I do feel like we’ve made the right choices so far, that God has been able to direct us to the most needy people at the most needy times, and I hope He continues to do that,” Dorsett said. “Because the needs definitely are far bigger than the resources.”
Time is also running out for the disaster relief workers; if homes can’t be restored before winter’s harsh temperatures set in, homeowners will have no place to go for months, perhaps even a year.
But amidst the challenges, many opportunities to share Christ have sprung up from Vermont’s muddy basements.
Cates recalled working on a house when a man next door asked him for advice on treating his flooring for mold.
“While we stood in mud, he told me how he hoped all the good things in life would outweigh the bad,” Cates wrote. “Right there, I got to share with him about Jesus’ sacrifice for our sins and God’s amazing grace. He let me pray for him in that mud-filled basement, and we are praying that He will turn his life over to Jesus Christ.”
Dorsett hopes that Vermonters will remember that in a time of disaster, Christians showed up to help.
“And since the typical Vermonter doesn’t think of God in his daily experience, it’s my hope that now they will,” he said, “because they saw the hands and feet of God at work all around them.”
John Evans is a writer based in Houston.