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Wilma opens new channels for disaster relief work & witness

NAPLES, Fla. (BP)–Leon Branch -– a veteran of Florida Baptist disaster relief cleanup and recovery efforts –- was surprised by what he found in southwest Florida when he arrived shortly after Hurricane Wilma came ashore Oct. 24.

“When we got here, we didn’t find the damage we normally deal with -– which is downed trees and trees on houses,” Branch told the Florida Baptist Witness at the Florida Baptist cleanup and recovery command center located at First Baptist Church of Naples.

“We had to adjust to the situation; we had to change our strategy and get our teams onboard to buy into what had to be done.”

And they had to buy different equipment. Chainsaws -– the ready tool of disaster relief teams –- were of little use for the damage found in the area. Instead, the teams had to purchase sheet metal saws, screw guns and other equipment that allowed them to assist retired citizens in three mobile home communities south of Naples that suffered damage from Wilma.

“We focused on those communities because of the age of the people –- and a lot of uninsured people,” Branch said. “We rolled some of those aluminum roofs back on and tarped them.”

With five teams of about 45 volunteers completing approximately 50 cleanup and recovery jobs in the first four days of the effort, Branch expected that part of the post-Wilma relief effort to be finished by the end of the month.

The command center also is coordinating Southern Baptists’ work in the preparation of meals being distributed by the Red Cross to outlying communities.

East Naples Baptist Church was assisted Oct. 27 by a team of volunteers mostly from Florida’s Marion Baptist Association.

Clay Cartwright, associate pastor of East Naples Baptist Church, was “really impressed with how quickly” the disaster relief team “showed up on the scene. I think they’re really a good testimony to our faith around the nation.”

The church’s youth had gathered up a large number of shingles that Wilma blew off the roof, so the disaster relief team cleared a couple downed trees on the church property. Another volunteer team covered the roof with tarps the next day.

Volunteer Pat Tyler, from Timber Ridge Baptist Church in Ocala, was working her third hurricane of the year.

“I’m good at pulling limbs. I love coming down and being able to see the people and see the expressions on their face when we arrive to help them -– and we can tell them we’re doing it because the Lord helped us and that’s why we’re here,” Tyler said.

Although the church’s senior pastor evacuated the area -– because he lived in a mandatory evacuation zone and had a special needs child –- Cartwright rode out the hurricane in his home.

Wilma was “as powerful a hurricane as I ever want to see…. It’s the wildest thing I’ve ever been through,” Cartwright told the Witness.

Just north of Everglades City where Wilma’s eye came ashore, Copeland Baptist Mission was unfazed by the hurricane, pastor John Gilmore said.

“Damage in the area could have been a lot worse,” Gilmore told the Witness, estimating the wind speeds were well in excess of 100 mph. In a church that normally has about 25 in worship, “I’m praying that through what happened we’ll have 275 in the church -– that people are going to see that the Lord spared them,” he said.

First Baptist Church of La Belle hosted a Florida Baptist disaster relief feeding unit from Florida’s Panhandle.

Pastor Frank Deerey said his church suffered minor damage, noting, “Overall, we’ve been very fortunate,” although some church members had damage to their homes.

The feeding unit’s presence in La Belle is helping church members to better understand the importance of the Southern Baptists’ Cooperative Program, said Deery, the congregation’s pastor of 10 years. And it is exposing the church to people in the community, “setting the stage” for future ministry, he said.

To the east, at First Baptist Church in Belle Glade, pastor Gary Folds was appreciative of North Carolina Baptist disaster relief help that included a kitchen unit and a shower unit.

Folds said the damage to the church — the steeple flew off and water poured into the sanctuary — could be repaired, but that people in the economically depressed rural area would go hungry without help.

“We have to take care of the people,” Folds said, stopping to greet youngsters and widows waiting in line for food. “The biggest thing right now is to minister to the community.”

Acknowledging he probably wouldn’t see most of the community’s residents at the church unless they had a need, Folds said he is compelled, nonetheless, to minister. “They won’t come to church, but they will remember we loved them during a crisis time and we’ll know we have extended the love of Jesus,” the pastor said. “It’s an opportunity to do what Jesus would do.”

In the Miami area, Iglesia Bautista Westland in Hialeah suffered structural and property damage, but never lost electricity, even as more than 75 percent of its members and the surrounding community were left to struggle without power.

Members of the church, which had already been damaged when Hurricane Katrina came though in August, were quick to join together to prepare their church for Sunday worship services. Pedro Jordan, one of 20-plus church members cleaning Westland’s site, and his wife stored their food in the church’s freezer and sometimes joined community families who used Westland’s kitchen to cook meals.

“I think God kept the electricity on in this place so that our church could provide a public service to this community,” Jordan said. “Our job as members is to work and help the church in any way so the church can then help the community.”

At Graham Baptist Church in Miami where the sanctuary was destroyed, the 150-member congregation had considered building a new structure for a number of years, said John Hill, the church’s pastor of 16 years. Now they are left with no alternative, he added.

But Hill will not be there to see the new structure. Prior to the hurricane he had announced his resignation in order to start a new church in Griffin, Ga. His last day at the Miami congregation was to be Sunday, Oct. 30.

“We have already selected our new man,” Hill said. “I told him I wanted to leave him with a clean slate, but I didn’t mean this clean.”
James A. Smith is executive editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, online at www.floridabaptistwitness.com. With reporting by Joni B. Hannigan of the Witness and Barbara Denman and Vanessa Rodriguez of Florida Baptist Convention communications.

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  • James A. Smith Sr.