Through tornadoes, floods and fire, Southern Baptists respond
By Joe Conway and Mickey Noah
The sky over Joplin, Mo., continued to spit light rain and clouds threatened on the horizon four days after one of the nation’s deadliest tornadoes plowed through the heart of the city. Search and rescue teams continued their hopeful trek through miles of debris. At least 159 were killed by the EF-5 tornado that hit the Midwest town on May 25.
And through it all, a spirit of resolute hope spurred on this city of 50,000. In the middle of the work clearing rubble were Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) volunteers by the score.
The tornado hit close to home for one of those SBDR volunteers. Gary Hunley, a “Blue Hat” for the Missouri Baptist Convention, lost his own home to the monster storm.
“You just don’t know where to start,” said Hunley, as he and his wife, Twyla, sifted through what was left of their belongings. “You don’t want to let people help you because you think other people need it more. Then you realize you do need the help.”
Twyla credited God’s protection and her husband’s devotion for their survival. “The wind was blowing so hard. We were praying. I did not think we were going to make it. Gary never let go of me. We never stopped praying, and God never let go of us either.”
Gary agreed. “It was very scary – all the noise and the air pressure. The wind was so strong it felt like 10 men trying to push the door in. Then everything started breaking apart. We asked God to help us. When it was over, everything else was gone but He held our hand,” said Hunley.
In the wake of the Joplin tornado, some 400 SBDR volunteers from Missouri, Kansas/Nebraska and Oklahoma prepared more than 18,000 meals; chaplains made 4,000 visits and contacts; 400 chainsaw jobs were completed; 134 children were cared for; and almost 900 showers and laundry loads were provided.
“We just appreciate the prayers and financial support and all the teams who volunteered,” said Rick Seaton, director of men’s missions and ministry for the Missouri Baptist Convention. “It was a tremendous response and a big operation. It went well because of the 400 volunteers who made it happen.”
The Joplin tornado came just one month after killer tornadoes struck the South during two different weeks in April.
On April 15-16, more than 50 people died across 14 states – from Oklahoma to Virginia – after some 250 tornadoes ripped through the South. In North Carolina alone, 21 died when a reported 60 tornadoes struck on April 16. In response, 1,500 North Carolina SBDR volunteers were mobilized for feeding and chainsaw work, according to Richard Brunson, director of Baptist Men for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina.
On that same weekend in Alabama, an estimated 40 tornadoes gashed through that state, including an EF-3 tornado that destroyed the sanctuary of Boone’s Chapel Baptist Church near Prattville, Ala., and killed three family members who lived about 200 yards from the church in a mobile home.
But the April 15-16 tornadoes were merely a foretaste of what was to come on April 27, when some 300 people were killed in Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Georgia, North Carolina, Virginia and Arkansas by an even deadlier spate of tornadoes. More than 249 were killed in Alabama alone when a mile-wide tornado plowed 200 miles northeast from Tuscaloosa up to Fort Payne and over into Ringgold, Ga. Dozens of Southern Baptist churches were damaged and destroyed.
Four days after the storm, pastor Allen Murphy stood beneath a giant gash in the roof of Mamre Baptist Church in Glencoe, Ala. “We’re blessed to have a roof over our heads,” said Murphy. “We still have a place to come and worship. This is just a building. You people sitting here are the Church.”
Behind the tall, gray-haired Murphy was a stained-glass window of Jesus in the baptistry, totally unscathed.
“Our work now is to leave this building and go out in the community where there’s so much devastation and so many people who don’t have anything. We must focus our prayers on them.
“It takes more than a tornado to take God away from us,” said Murphy, reassuring those who’d suffered much loss during the week.
And although he smiled and said the occasional “amen,” deacon Ralph Motes, 59, was hurting—along with his wife, Deborah—more than anyone else in the church. The day before, they had buried Spencer, their 33-year-old son, killed on that fateful Wednesday night, as he and 15 others huddled for safety in the basement of the old Mamre church on the adjacent hill. The tornado demolished the 52-year-old church building, causing the walls to collapse on young Motes. The others survived.
“We got a call that Spence was trapped in the basement of the old church,” said Motes, reliving the event. “They found him on the prayer bench he was praying on. They said the last thing out of his mouth was, “Let’s pray.”
How does Ralph, as big a man physically as he is spiritually, talk to a stranger about his eldest son, a young man who died tragically and too soon trying to help others?
“I can talk about it because of my faith and because God saved me,” the elder Motes said, choking back his emotions. “God sent his Son to die for me and Spence.”
In the two weeks following the April 27 tornadoes in Alabama, SBDR mobilized almost 5,900 trained volunteers—from 10 state conventions—to work in Alabama. Among those 5,900 volunteers were more than 200 SBC chaplains, who fanned out across Alabama to do grief counseling and help tornado victims cope with the high stress levels brought on by grief over lost loved ones and massive property damage.
State conventions responding in the aftermath of the deadly and historic Alabama tornadoes included Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Michigan, Oklahoma, South Carolina, the Southern Baptists of Texas and Texas Baptist Men.
After the state disaster relief teams stood down in storm-ravaged Alabama and Missouri, other state teams were deployed to Brimfield, Mass., and Williston, Vt., where three tornadoes ripped through Springfield to Brimfield in western Massachusetts on June 1, killing four and impacting 19 communities. Some 30 SBDR volunteers from Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania/South Jersey, New York, Connecticut, North Carolina and Maine were deployed to Massachusetts. Working out of an incident command post set up at Friendship Baptist Church in Brimfield, they included SBDR recovery, feeding, assessment, chaplaincy and shower units.
When not following the tornadoes this year, SBDR teams have also responded to heavy flooding in Vermont, Kentucky, Ohio, Montana, Louisiana, Mississippi, Illinois, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, California, Iowa and Wyoming. Teams are currently gearing up for a major response in Minot, N.D., where major flooding of the local Souris River has impacted 4,000 homes, requiring extensive mud-out work.
SBDR also responded to a rash of wildfires, which in 2011 have plagued Texas, Arizona, Kansas/Nebraska, Florida and Silver Lake, Alberta, Canada, with the latest fire in New Mexico.
From its disaster operations center in Alpharetta, Ga., the North American Mission Board coordinates Southern Baptist response to major disasters through a partnership between NAMB and the SBC’s 42 state conventions, most of which run state disaster relief programs.
The assets SBDR brings to disaster events include 82,000 trained volunteers and some 1,550 mobile units for feeding, chainsaw, mud-out, command, communication, child care, shower, laundry, water purification, repair/rebuild and power generation. SBDR is the largest mobilizer of trained, credentialed disaster relief volunteers in the United States, including The Red Cross and The Salvation Army.
Even with this year far from over and in the midst of the annual hurricane season that does not end until November 30, 2011 will forever be remembered as the year of deadly tornadoes, historic flooding, an unusual number of state wildfires, earthquakes and even a tsunami.
Except for 2005 – the year of Hurricane Katrina – SBDR staff and volunteers have seldom been so taxed and spread so thin as in 2011.
“It’s been a very busy year,” admits Mickey Caison, disaster relief coordinator for NAMB, adding that he thinks the SBDR network is getting stronger all the time.
“We’ve had a lot of states involved in a lot of responses,” Caison said. Even though we’ve been stretched thin and involved in so many different states, our state leaders and volunteers continue to step up in ministry. We’ve had the diversity of disasters in past years but not the diversity of disasters spread across so many states.”
In July, NAMB sent $950,000 to Baptist conventions in seven states hardest hit by this spring’s tornadoes and storms.
“We are disbursing all the funds we received for spring storm relief,” said NAMB president Kevin Ezell. “We are grateful to Southern Baptists for their generosity and want them to know the money is going where it is most needed.” He added that funds received after the most recent payout will go to North Dakota for flood relief.
While 2011 will go down as another successful year for the thousands of SBDR volunteers across the United States and Canada, it won’t be because of the 412,000 meals prepared, or the 28,000 “volunteer days” served, or because of the 4,000 mud-out and chainsaw jobs completed. It was successful, leaders say, because 100 more lives were led to Christ and 22,000 gospel presentations, ministry contacts and chaplaincy contacts were made during the first seven months of the year.
“Southern Baptists have been a true blessing to me,” said Gary Hunley, humbled by the outpouring of love and support. “They have helped me grow in my faith.” OM
Joe Conway is managing editor of On Mission. Mickey Noah is a writer for the North American Mission Board.
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