While trudging through the rubble of a broken community in Gulfport, Mississippi, after Hurricane Katrina, Bobby Welch caught a glimpse of two tiny legs with blue tennis shoes and a flowery skirt lying under some debris.
"I got down on my knee and began to scratch around in the mess there, and I dug out this tiny little baby doll," Welch, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, told Executive Committee members as he held up a small, dirty doll. "That thing has been through everything imaginable. I can't imagine all the junk that's in it. It's just matted.
"Here in one place it has somebody's receipt from a restaurant or gas station or something. Over here's a piece of cardboard and everything else, and the big white piece here — the largest piece — that's an emaciated page out of the New Testament," he said during the opening session of the Executive Committee's September 19-20 meeting in Nashville, Tennessee.
Welch recalled standing amid the debris and hearing God say something through the little doll that he believes Southern Baptists everywhere need to hear. He acknowledged that no one wants a Convention president who plays with dolls, much less one who thinks dolls can talk, but a greater lesson was at stake.
"I'm willing to say dolls can't talk, but I'm also willing to acknowledge that God was able to use mules and roosters and everything else to get the word across. And somehow, that day, all of this connected, and it was like this little doll was saying to me, 'Don't you see? Disasters don't discriminate. We all get it. It goes from the nursery to the old age home. Disaster doesn't discriminate, and the love of the Lord Jesus Christ must not discriminate either,'" Welch said.
As Southern Baptists are making a first-class effort to help hurricane victims recover from devastating loss, Welch said the one thing they must not allow to happen is for anyone to be left out of the opportunity to receive Christ.
"When you go and you give the cup of cold water, you be sure you give a witness of Jesus Christ. Don't just smile and say, 'I go to church,'" he said. "You give a witness of Jesus Christ to those people because the water, the beanie weenies, and the food will run out, but whoever drinks of this water will never thirst again. It will not run out. That is our biblical distinctive."
The temptation is to focus all resources and all energy on the residents of three states during this time, Welch said, but Southern Baptists must not disregard the rest of the nation and the world that is hurting and headed for an eternity without Christ.
"We must seize this opportunity. We must not discriminate," he said. "We must not leave one crowd and go to another. Get burdened and overburdened about Alabama and Mississippi and Louisiana … but don't forget those back home — they need the same gospel!"
The fields are ripe for the harvest where people have lost everything they own and even their family members, but those who are providing the relief resources elsewhere in the country have tender hearts at this time as well, Welch said. So Southern Baptists must "receive the cup of cold water in Jesus' name" before giving it to someone else. When Baptists accept donations to distribute, they must be sure those who donate know about Christ, too.
Welch said he realized a second thought when he was holding the little doll in the rubble.
"I thought about the fact that earthly treasures sure are tricky, but the love of Jesus Christ is always trustworthy and true," Welch said, recalling the unbelievable mess of scattered and unrecognizable possessions as far as his eyes could see on the Gulf Coast.
"All of us get hit at the material end of things. You better not trust in treasures of this earth," he said. "That's why it's a safe thing to give. It's a safe thing to let it go for the glory of God and to live a more simplified life that others might live."
The third lesson Welch learned from the doll in the debris is that what often seems impossible can be turned around for good.
"Hardship can oftentimes become holy if we allow the love of the Lord Jesus Christ to capitalize on the catastrophe," he said. "Isn't that what Calvary's all about? Isn't that what happened there, the worst thing imaginable? And then the song says, 'And love grew where the blood fell.' God Almighty moved in, and we had a chance to follow the Lord Jesus and be saved."
Critics shouldn't accuse Southern Baptists of manipulating hurting hearts in order to get their message across, Welch said, because they only need to look at Jesus' example in the Bible. Whenever Jesus came upon people in trouble, hardship, or disaster, before He left the scene He was sure to give them the love of God, Welch said.
Southern Baptists may very well be arriving at their destiny now, Welch said, recalling the launch of the Everyone Can Kingdom Challenge for evangelism at the 2005 annual meeting in Nashville.
"Do you think that could be providential?" Welch asked. "Out of the sovereignty of God, that He'd take the largest evangelical denomination in the world and all of a sudden begin to focus them on being prepared for a great opportunity to win, witness, and baptize like never before? I think so. I believe we're positioned ideally for what God wants to do."
Intentional evangelism across the nation and the world must emerge from the destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina, Welch said. If not, the tragedy will be a waste.
"I believe this will be our finest hour, Southern Baptists," he said. "If it is not our finest hour, then likely we'll be headed toward our final hour, because if we do not rise to this occasion, we have lost the ability to rise to any occasion worthwhile. But I do believe it's our finest hour, and I'm so glad today to be alive and be a part of it."
He ended with a plea for Southern Baptists to keep the main thing the main thing when circumstances are overwhelming.
"You've been placed here now to be faithful to your call," Welch said. "Give them Jesus. Give them Jesus. Give them Jesus! You may run out of water, you may run out of beans, you may run out of chow, but you won't run out of Jesus! Give them Jesus!"