BASTROP, Texas (BP) — Raymond Edge, pastor of First Baptist Church in Bastrop, Texas, said he had planned to preach from Psalm 46:1-7 — a refuge passage — on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. But the ferocious wildfires in Bastrop County the previous week left his church feeling far removed from 9/11 remembrances.
“That had become so far away because right now this is what we are living,” Edge told the Southern Baptist Texan on the afternoon of Sept. 11.
In Bastrop County, 1,554 homes and 35,000 acres had burned as of Sept. 12, with more expected to be reported as authorities allowed displaced residents to re-enter neighborhoods. The fire was about 60 percent contained, the Texas Forest Service reported.
Statewide, some 250 counties remained under burn bans as the extreme drought continues across the southern plains.
At FBC Bastrop, feeding, shower and laundry units from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention were set up and the congregation worked to clear a church-owned building for use as an evacuation shelter.
Edge said he was able to draw some of his Sunday message from the original passage but turned his focus on the church and community. Psalm 31:1-4 became the source of the sermon title, “In you, oh Lord, I put my trust” — a passage in which the Lord is a “rock of refuge.”
Adam Espurvoa, pastor of Iglesia Bautista Emanuel in Bastrop, spoke from his own experience and God’s provision. He quoted Psalm 34:7: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him and delivers them.”
Espurvoa and his congregation mostly live in rural Bastrop County on acreages surrounded by pine trees. All of the 300 pines on his lot burned as the fire circled his house.
“I can touch the [outside] wall of my house and touch the ground where the fire stopped,” Espurvoa said.
River Valley Christian Fellowship pastor Cody Whitfill, who lost his house in the fire, said 16 families in his church of 400 lost their homes.
“My thoughts are to emphasize that our hope is Christ,” Whitfill said prior to Sept. 11 services.
In addition to a disaster relief team from the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention preparing meals for emergency responders and evacuees, as well as providing shower trailers and laundry units, members of River Valley also began feeding people the day after the fires began and ended that week serving 15,000 meals.
The effect of the Bastrop County fires on churches was still being assessed, pastors said. Additionally, 5,000 people had been displaced, though some of those have returned to their neighborhoods.
Most of the congregation of Iglesia Bautista Emanuel was sleeping in the church building because roads to their homes were blocked by police each night due to looting, Espurvoa said. The area also was without electricity.
The pastor, his wife Eva and eight senior members of the church left Bastrop Sept. 12 for the Alto Frio Baptist Encampment in central Texas to participate in an already scheduled senior retreat. Espurvoa, 73, considered staying behind but church members encouraged him to go for some much-needed rest.
Espurvoa was able to find some humor in the somber atmosphere as he noted, “I’ve been preaching for 49 years. This is the first time I’ve preached in blue jeans and tennis shoes. All my suits are smoked up.”
Edge, meanwhile, said FBC Bastrop spent their usual Sunday School hour in a time of fellowship and prayer. Just having the chance to talk and cry together meant a great a deal to them, he said.
The pastors said some of their families were away from home when the evacuation alert was given. Other barely escaped.
Edge told of a man from his church who was taking a Sunday afternoon nap when his son, who lived next door, came to the house to get him out. The man looked out the window to see a wall of fire heading directly toward his home. The two families had only time enough to get in their cars and drive away as flames leapt up on both sides of the road to safety.
Edge has pastored at FBC Bastrop for 15 years and drawn close to the families he has watched grow up in the church. The first week of the fires he cried for and with his congregation. Then, he added, God would renew his strength so he could continue to minister to so many who were hurting.
“More than anything else I have asked God to let me help with spiritual needs,” he said.
Espurvoa said he wants to ensure his congregation is cared for so they can help others too. The Austin Baptist Association has delivered water and groceries to the Bastrop churches. He said some of the donations collected by his church members have then been given to their own relatives and neighbors. As his members graciously share their provisions with others, Espurvoa said they will be a witness of the grace and mercy of Jesus.
Jason Bray, a staff member of River Valley Christian Fellowship, who is coordinating the church’s meal ministry, said Texas-owned H.E.B grocery chain also has donated substantially to feeding evacuees.
The SBTC feeding unit at FBC Bastrop prepared 260 meals on Sept. 9 and 985 meals on Sept. 10. The hot meals were delivered via Red Cross Emergency Response Vehicles (ERVs) to people in a shelter in Paige, Texas, and to some people sifting through remains of their homes.
The number of meals prepared declined significantly Sept. 11 as people began to move out of shelters. The feeding crew has not been given new orders but Edge anticipated clean-up crews beginning work soon.
A second SBTC feeding unit was deployed to First Baptist Church in Magnolia, north of Houston, where firefighters worked to get another wildfire under control. That blaze, which covered portions of Montgomery, Grimes and Waller counties, had scorched 22,000 acres and destroyed almost 100 homes. The feeding crew had served about 1,000 meals a day for firefighters and evacuees there.
Bonnie Pritchett is a correspondent for the Southern Baptist Texan (texanonline.net), newsjournal of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.