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Welch thanks workers, prays with hurricane-weary pastors

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–Southern Baptist Convention President Bobby Welch visited the hurricane-ravaged Gulf Coast July 13-14, bringing greetings and prayers on behalf of the 16-million-plus Southern Baptists nationwide.

Characterizing himself as an ambassador of good will, Welch traveled from Florida to Alabama and back, surveying damage, praying with pastors and thanking Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers for their labor.

In Pensacola, Welch met with Bob Greene, director of missions for the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association, and Bobby Musselwhite, director of missions for the Santa Rosa Baptist Association. Rick Lance, executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, met with Welch in Alabama.

Both DOMs serve in areas where the Category 3 Hurricane Dennis blew in July 10 from the Gulf Coast. In addition to damaging homes and ripping trees and signs from the ground, Dennis knocked out power to an estimated 500,000 people, 50 percent of whom had power restored by July 14.

At the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association’s health clinic, Welch spoke briefly with Kimberley Taghon, associate project coordinator for World Changers, which has about 160 students working on various cleanup and rebuilding projects in the Pensacola area throughout the week.

Understanding the students had already been mobilized to the area in advance of the storm, Welch said it was good to know members of the group would be flexible enough to be able to serve in such a vital mission.

“That is just divine timing,” Welch told Taghon.

Touring the medical clinic facility, Welch greeted volunteers and workers serving clients looking for assistance. In the pharmacy, he stood with Greene amongst endless shelves of medications ready for the clinic’s doctor to dispense.

The physical and spiritual “needs are profound,” Greene told Welch. “This is an evangelistic outreach cleverly disguised as a medical clinic.”

Welch agreed. “You are doing a good thing,” he said. “This would have been full of brooms and toilet paper if you all didn’t have initiative. This is blessed.”

From Pensacola, Musselwhite drove Welch to mostly rural areas through the countryside where piles of tree limbs and debris lined the narrow roads.

A blanket of torn insulation decorated the trees across the road from Ray’s Chapel Baptist Church in Escambia County where the strong winds from Dennis peeled back and tore off half the roof of a three-year-old educational facility and fellowship hall.

The church’s pastor, Fill Enfinger, showed Welch the second-floor classrooms where the sky peeked through the ceiling all along the damaged side of the building.

“Ah, look what Dennis did,” was written with marker on a dry erase board in one classroom where pouring rain had stained the carpet.

Enfinger and his wife, Mary, told Welch they returned to the area last week from a missions trip to Mexico after hearing their granddaughter’s husband had died in a mishap involving an automobile he was working on. The funeral was Saturday. Hurricane Dennis hit on Sunday.

Welch, Greene and Musselwhite prayed with the couple at the entry to the church’s sanctuary.

Welch later told the Florida Baptist Witness he was moved by Enfinger’s courage in the face of tragedy.

“I found myself saying, ‘Lord, please make me as faithful as Fill,’” Welch said.

At Pleasant Hill Baptist Church in Century, Fla., where a large tree crushed the side of the church’s sanctuary and several other trees littered the cemetery (some left over from Hurricane Ivan), Pastor James Hughes jokingly asked Welch where his work gloves were.

Indicating his desire to visit a number of churches, Welch said he knew he would be limited. “But we could come by and pray.”

And pray Welch did.

“Lord, it would be shame for a tree to fall down and nobody hear the Gospel,” he prayed. “Use this to glorify Yourself.”

In Flomaton, Ala., about 50 miles north of Pensacola, at Little Escambia Baptist Church, Welch spoke with Alabama Baptists’ state executive, Rick Lance, and the church’s pastor, Chap Howard, assuring them of the support of Southern Baptists and the appreciation he had for Alabama Baptists.

Noting also the presence of Tennessee and Georgia Baptists helping in a massive feeding effort in partnership with the American Red Cross, Welch told them he is appreciative of the concerted effort to reach out.

“God bless you,” Welch said. “I know this has taken days and hours out of your schedule.”

Spying three members of the National Guard directing traffic to the church in the sweltering heat, Welch introduced himself as a veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces and prayed with the men.

Later, Welch told the Witness his conversation with the men was a “straight heads-up, no baloney” talk about living godly lives all week long. All three men identified themselves as Christian believers, but admitted they need to focus on some areas of their Christian walk. “It was a highlight for me,” Welch said.

At the steps of rural Robinsonville Baptist Church in Ala., Welch prayed with Lance, the church’s pastor and others. Engineers earlier said the building’s foundation had been damaged when Hurricane Dennis struck with high winds and pounding rain.

Heading back to Florida, Welch stopped at New Hope Baptist Church in Century where Pastor Irving Stallworth said the American Red Cross unit which set up a feeding station at the church in the predominantly black community had earlier run out of food after feeding 500 meals for lunch.

The church, which meets in a 29,000-square-foot former school it leased from the county for $1, is slowly building community trust with efforts to reach out, Stallworth told Welch.

Their most recent purchase has been a feeding trough to be used as a baptistery, Stallworth said. He told Welch he got the idea the small congregation needed a baptistery after hearing the SBC president preach in Nashville at the SBC annual meeting on his initiative for Southern Baptists to baptize 1 million people in the next year.

“I got back and just knew I needed to get this going already,” Stallworth told Welch. Comparing Century, 40 miles north of Pensacola, to Haiti, the young pastor told Welch he appreciated his prayer and remains positive despite being in a place where people say they feel sometimes that “God has forgotten” them.

Over at First Baptist, Jay, disaster relief workers were beginning to come in to grill dinner and cool off after working throughout the neighborhoods on cleanup and recovery efforts.

Though the main feeding units were across the state line at Flomaton, the Southern Baptist relief workers in Jay weren’t hindered by state lines; like some governmental agency workers, they sought to help those who needed it most.

Citing the work of Southern Baptists across state convention lines, Richard (Chip) Fox Jr., pastor of First Baptist in Jay, said he is grateful for the help in his community.

Welch got excited when a chainsaw and cleanup crew from Gadsden, Ala., near his birthplace, showed up in Jay and swapped stories about folks they might have in common back home.

“People come from the most interesting places in the nation and they all converge,” Welch later told the Witness. “Only God knows how they get here, from Sand Mountain and other places, sawing trees and working.”

Disaster relief workers in particular have become “masterful” in “synergizing” with other groups “intentionally to get the Gospel out,” Welch continued.

“This is only Wednesday and this thing happened on Sunday — and on Monday they had already cleared out church roads and parking lots,” Welch said. “It’s really heart-lifting.”

Welch told the Witness there was “something spiritually wholesome and healthy” about people in the body of Christ working together to impact a community.

“These are ordinary people who have banded together with sweaty T-shirts, with blood-red faces and stringy hair, male and female alike, for one reason, and that is for the Kingdom of Christ and for the sake of souls,” Welch said. “This is raw, on the streets, church life when it’s getting tough and they are measuring up.”

Walking around speaking with volunteers from George Baptist Disaster Relief at Immanuel Baptist Church in Pace, Fla., the group’s “blue hat” (disaster relief leader), Jimmy Harris, told Welch they had just finished serving 1,200 people lunch — but had prepared for only 200.

Not sure of what they would be able to produce for an evening meal, Harris said he believed people of all income levels — whether migrant workers or more well-heeled residents like those living in the upscale neighborhood around the church — appreciate the hot meals, ice and water.

Recognized by a volunteer who began to chant “Everyone Can,” and one who asked if he was the “frog man,” Welch drew a small crowd of workers when he acknowledged he had received some ribbing about the sermon he preached at the Southern Baptist Convention annual meeting in Nashville in June. Welch’s sermon illustration centered around dead frogs he found on the street in front of his house. Re-elected to a second one-year term as SBC president in June, Welch is pastor of First Baptist Church in Daytona Beach and is the co-founder of the FAITH Sunday School evangelism strategy.

Quickly changing the subject to express appreciation for the workers, Welch told them he wanted to pray for them.

“I’ll pray as short as I can,” Welch assured the workers, who were eyeballing food cooking on gas burners under a large tent. “I don’t want you to burn the beans.”

Heading to the Florida Baptist Disaster Relief Command Center at First Baptist Church in Milton, Welch finally joined in the food line set up for volunteers.

“Thank God and bless you,” Welch told them, recognizing some he remembered from a tour he made of central Florida and Punta Gorda after Hurricane Charley last year.

Later Welch said his biggest impressions were of ordinary people who were doing extraordinary things to help people out. Welch also said he was impressed with how “intentional” Southern Baptists had become in developing partnerships and relationships that produce effective disaster relief projects.

And Southern Baptists should know they make it all possible.

Disaster relief gives a clear picture of “the Cooperative Program dollars bubbling up everywhere and that’s a wonderful expression that our Southern Baptist folks back home need,” Welch said. “I’m just sorry they are not up close to where they can smell the beans and rice and hot dogs and see their Cooperative Program money and the hearts and mouths of people all getting the Gospel.

“And it all happened when they passed that plate around on Sunday morning,” Welch said.

On the road again July 14, Welch stopped to pray with two Florida pastors whose churches are almost at ground zero.

At Billory Baptist Church in Navarre, Fla., Welch prayed with bivocational pastor Doug Gilmore, who was removing tree limbs from the church grounds after working the previous evening. Also in Navarre, Welch stopped to pray with Bob Moritz, pastor of First Baptist Church.

Musselwhite called Welch’s visit a “tremendous gesture” and said it has given the SBC president an opportunity to see firsthand the situation for many Florida pastors who fill multiple roles in the church.

“Seeing this kind of commitment from the pastors is also an encouragement to Dr. Welch and a reminder of how so many bivocational pastors have taken so many roles in the church,” Musselwhite said.

Commenting specifically on Welch’s insistence to visit many of the pastors who minister in the outlying and rural areas, Musselwhite said their only attachment to the SBC may be through information they read.

“It is an encouragement to have the president come by and visit with them and speak to them and pray with them,” Musselwhite said.
To contribute to Florida Baptist Disaster Relief, call toll-free 1-800-226-8584. To contribute to Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief, send checks marked for “disaster relief” and payable to the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions at 2001 E. South Blvd., Montgomery, AL 36116. Volunteers interested in helping in cleanup efforts should contact the adult missions volunteer coordinator at the North American Mission Board at www.NAMB.net. Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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  • Joni B. Hannigan