PORT ARTHUR, Texas (BP)–“Lord, bless every piece of bread, every bowl of beans, every sandwich, every bottle of water given in the name of Jesus,” Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch prayed as he huddled with SBC Disaster Relief volunteers.
The theme was familiar among the Baptist “yellow shirt” volunteers who’ve been around Welch since hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit the Gulf Coast states: Baptists giving out bottled water, sandwiches and beanie weenies are giving what Welch calls “holy gifts” because they are given in Jesus’ name.
Welch joined Executive Committee President Morris H. Chapman and three members of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention staff in touring Hurricane Rita-ravaged Southeast Texas Sept. 30.
The group made eight stops during a 10-hour trek across a geographic area that spanned from Port Arthur, Texas, as far north as Jasper, 70 miles from the coast.
Coastal areas and a large swath of rural southeast Texas had been without electricity for days due to Rita’s toll on power lines and equipment. Estimates given on local radio stations were that some regions could be without electricity for a month or longer.
At a K-Mart parking lot near Port Arthur, Welch, Chapman, the SBTC’s Deron Biles and Texas Baptist Builders consultant Steve Carr greeted local pastors and SBTC Disaster Relief volunteers, introducing themselves and encouraging the volunteers with prayer and words of thanks.
One displaced man who had passed through the food line in Port Arthur asked Welch to sign a devotional Bible for a friend who has AIDS. Welch wrote a note as SBTC Disaster Relief State Director Bill Davenport and another volunteer listened to the man’s story.
Dustin Guidry, pastor of Ridgewood Baptist Church in Port Arthur, which housed several dozen SBTC Disaster Relief workers in its gym, told Welch and Chapman his church suffered some wind and water damage, but the church’s school is his biggest concern.
“We’ve got 130 kids that attend the school,” Guidry said. “Hopefully, a week after everybody gets back in to Port Arthur we can have classes again.”
Like most Texas Gulf Coast residents, Guidry and his wife are displaced; the couple is staying temporarily with family in Monroe, La.
“Our staff is all over,” Guidry said. “We’ve got one in Dallas, one in Lubbock.”
Up the road in Silsbee, Texas, about 40 miles north of Port Arthur, the group stopped at Woodrow Baptist Church, home to a small, pastorless congregation, although none of the members were found at the church.
But the open doors hinted that air was being circulated to hasten drying out a facility that suffered wind and rain damage, both inside and out. The choir loft was filled with cabinets, desks and office supplies. The red carpet was littered with scattered leaves and other debris. A crimson worship banner hung proudly over the choir loft.
Welch wrote a note on a large sheet of paper, each member of the group signed it, and he left it in the auditorium for someone to find.
“This is the Southern Baptist Convention … right here,” Welch said as he and Chapman stood near the altar of the approximately 20-by-60-foot auditorium that was lit only by the sunlight from the open west door and several small windows.
The group left another note at Genesis Baptist Church, near Buna, Texas, where damage included a sheared-off steeple.
In nearby Kirbyville, Texas, an evening thanksgiving rally featuring Welch drew about 100 people from the community on the grounds of the First Baptist Church, which has helped feed and distribute ice to 1,000-1,500 people a day from the town and from outlying areas. Six people made professions.
Preaching from the bed of a pick-up truck near the church, Welch opened to 1 Corinthians 15 and spoke of God’s love in the midst of dire circumstances, using a storm-battered doll he found along the Mississippi coast as an object lesson for disasters.
The doll, Welch explained, had a tear just below one knee and what appeared to be a receipt and part of the New Testament matted to its hair.
“Disasters do not discriminate,” Welch told the crowd. “They affect rich and poor, young folks and old folks.”
“The love of Christ must not discriminate either…. Everybody deserves to hear the Gospel,” Welch said. “They may get the bottled water, but we must share with them the love of Jesus Christ as well. That’s what makes us different. We do it in Jesus’ name.”
Welch also said that “earthly treasures sure get away in a hurry, but the love of Jesus Christ will always be trustworthy and true…. The thing we must build our life on is Jesus Christ.”
Finally, Welch said, hardships can be holy experiences because only God can take what appears to be bad and turn it for good.
“Let it be said that this community will never be the same again. God came down and took a hardship and made it into something holy.”