NEW YORK CITY (BP)–As a blackout covered the Northeast in darkness Aug. 14, Baptists throughout the region tried to shine the light of Christ.
The blackout that affected an estimated 50 million people in major cities such as New York, Cleveland and Toronto provided Christians in the region a unique opportunity for ministry.
Baptists in New York City handed out icy pops on the street to those walking home. A minister in Cleveland used his battery-powered laptop to send e-mails to church members, assuring them that services Sunday would be held with or without power. And in Toronto, a church planter recounted how the blackout was proving a “neat way” to remind Canadians of their need for the Gospel.
Investigators studying the cause of the blackout were still searching for answers early Aug. 15, although signs were pointing to northern Ohio as being the start of the failure.
“That’s where the information is starting to point,” Ellen Vancko, a spokeswoman for the North American Electric Reliability Council, told the Associated Press. “It looks like that’s where the collapse started.”
Local and federal officials, including President Bush, repeatedly said the incident was not terror-related.
“One thing I think I can say for certain is that this was not a terrorist act,” Bush said in a press conference shortly after the blackout started. “… We’ll find out here what caused the blackout. But, most importantly, what we now need to do is fix the problem and to get electricity up and running as quickly as possible.”
Of course, electricity wasn’t needed for Christian ministry.
In New York City, Lisa Chilson-Rose, director of volunteers at the Metropolitan New York Baptist Association, reported that everyone at the associational office was fine and electricity had been restored Friday morning.
She said that when the power first went off, people in the office thought something in the building had gone wrong. Then they looked out the window and saw people from other businesses gathering outside to determine what had happened.
“We immediately got a battery-powered radio and heard the whole city was out,” Chilson-Rose told Baptist Press. “It was the end of the day, so most people had begun to go home anyway. We just took an assessment of what needed to be done and got some candles and flashlights.”
She explained that a mission team from Browncroft Baptist Church in Rochester, N.Y., was at the association office when the power went out, and they were able to minister.
“Part of our dilemma was that everything in our refrigerators was going to spoil, so they took icy pops from the freezer and gave them out to people on the street as they were going by,” Chilson-Rose said. “People were very shocked and pleasantly surprised. They got a chance to share with the people as they were giving out the icy pops. So they were able to do a little mission work while we were waiting to see what was going on.”
Chilson-Rose said when the power went out, she and some of her coworkers who had been in New York during 9/11 looked at each other and thought, “Oh, no, this might be happening again.” She said there was a little anxiety for a while until they knew what was occurring.
“Even though it was very difficult, we were happy to hear that it was just a power outage,” she said. “Several staff people who were stuck here stayed overnight in the building. We prayed, talked and had some fellowship in the dark.”
While transportation is still a problem in the city, things are getting back to normal, Chilson-Rose said.
“This morning I was checking my e-mail and lots of people have written and said they were praying for us, so we really appreciate the prayers from around the country,” she said. “God was certainly with us through the night. I knew there were certain people who were praying for us, but it was nice to get those e-mails to know others were too.”
Terry Robertson, pastor of Amherst Baptist Church in Amherst, N.Y., and a member of the SBC Executive Committee, said all is well in his community. About 1.2 million people in western New York had been without power, he said, but it had been completely restored by Friday morning.
“Some of our church members operate a small convenience store on the corner down from us,” Robertson said. “My oldest son was working for them when the power went out, so I walked three blocks down to the store to check on things there and ended up trying to answer the phones for them while the electricity was off. There were just scores of people coming in that small store, eventually buying out the stock that the store had available. So folks really panicked when it first hit, but we faired very well over here.”
Robertson also was in the midst of preparation for a wedding rehearsal when the blackout occurred.
“We started the wedding rehearsal in the dark and were amazed when the power came on while we were still doing the rehearsal,” he said. “Then we went to a rehearsal dinner at a restaurant that had no electricity. We had a very intimate candlelight dinner.”
He had been attempting to contact some people he knows in the New York City area but had not been able to get through. Robertson was especially interested in the status of northern New Jersey because he was moving from Amherst Baptist to Madison (N.J.) Baptist Church during the coming week.
“I needed to check on my new church family, but apparently only one small community on that church belt was affected,” he said.
In the Toronto area, the blackout was among the inaugural experiences of church planter Chris Adams, who had moved there two weeks earlier from Broxton, Ga., where he had been First Baptist Church’s pastor.
Once the blackout eases, Adams told Baptist Press, “We think this is going to be a neat way to remind people of the need for the Gospel and the light it brings into people’s lives.”
The most densely populated unchurched region of North America is along the northern shore of Lake Ontario, a corridor stretching from Windsor, Ontario, near Detroit to Quebec City, east of Montreal, he said, referencing statistics tapped by church planters.
The blackout, he added, may be one additional way Christians learn about the efforts of The Sanctuary, a congregation founded two years ago with the express purpose of planting churches — with four already established and two more on the way. Adams will be launching a congregation in the Toronto suburb of Brampton, with a population of 325,000. The Sanctuary is based in the suburb of Oakville.
“It’s amazing how the community here has pulled together,” Adams said the morning of Aug. 15 from Oakville, commenting how pedestrians had stepped forward to direct traffic and that there had been no reports of major looting or break-ins.
“Right now, everything is really quiet, because they’re advising people not take to the streets,” he said. Only essential personnel were on the roads — along with a number of people making their way home from spending the night in Toronto.
Adams and his wife Christy and their two daughters were tending to immigration matters at Niagara Falls when the blackout hit. They returned to Oakville and were without power until 2:30 a.m., though the region may face rolling blackouts for 24 hours as the power grid is restored.
In Cleveland, the power outage provided Christians with opportunities to minister through acts of kindness, said Bob Mackey, pastor of the Parma Baptist Church and moderator of the Greater Cleveland Baptist Association.
Mackey lost power at both his church and his home shortly after 4 p.m. Thursday. By 6 a.m. Friday, the church had regained power and began to open its doors for Cleveland-area residents who are without air conditioning in their homes.
“The ministry opportunities really were just people helping people as normal Christians … directing traffic and staying calm,” Mackey said. “I think most people perceive this as a temporary 24-hour delay.”
Mackey spent Thursday night with his wife and one of their sons, playing games by candlelight and cooking macaroni with sausage on their camping stove. During the evening, he used his laptop to e-mail church members.
“We called our church family, and I sent an e-mail out and started all of our phone chains and encouraged everybody to call everybody and check on everybody, make sure everybody was OK,” he said.
If the power outage persists until Sunday, Parma Baptist Church will hold services using its “Good News Wagon” — a cart with portable generators and flood lights that the church uses for outreach events, Mackey said.
“I sent an e-mail out to our church family last night saying, power or not, we’re having church Sunday. Don’t assume we’re not going to be there, because we’ll be there. We’ll figure something out,” he said.
“We’re Christians. We have a lot of confidence in the Lord. … In the Cleveland area, it doesn’t sound like a whole lot of people are panicked.”
Compiled by Michael Foust, with reporting by Erin Curry, David Roach & Art Toalston. (BP) photo posted in the BP Photo Library at http://www.bpnews.net. Photo title: MASS EXODUS.