By Mark Kelly & Jon Walker
Photography by John Swain
When four hurricanes hammered the southeastern United States during the span
of just six weeks last fall, Americas disaster relief resources were stretched
like never before. Even the largest charities found themselves running short on
volunteers as long days of exhausting work dragged into weeks.
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Yet Southern Baptists stepped up and met the challenge. Just as Southern
Baptists step up to the plate to repair roofs (World Changers), construct
churches (Baptist Builders) or even lead campsite ministries (Campers On
Mission). Volunteer opportunities are everywhere. Anyone can call the North
American Mission Boards Volunteer Mobilization Center (800-462-VOLS) and say Im
planning a trip to North Carolina next monthhow can I serve? Depending on
training and skills, they will be connected to an opportunity through a
Southern Baptist state convention, association or local missionary.
Building homes. Building lives. No work illustrates
the hearts of on mission Christians better than the efforts of disaster relief
volunteers. Especially when they came across some mean-spirited rascals named
Bonnie, Charlie, Ivan and Jeanne.
It was amazing, says Jim Burton, director of NAMBs Volunteer Mobilization
team. The coastlines of Florida and Alabama were hit very hard by the
hurricanes, but their own volunteers served gallantly.
Volunteers responded from 38 of the 42 Baptist state
conventions. We saw at least 10,000maybe as many as 18,000Southern Baptists
leave their families and jobs and come to the aid of people in distress, adds
Those volunteers threw themselves into the hard work of hurricane recovery
with a passion that can only be explained by the love of Christ, says Mickey
Caison, manager of NAMBs Adult Volunteer Mobilization unit.
When you work a feeding unit in a parking lot or cut trees off houses 14 to
16 hours a day in the heat and humidity, and then sleep on the floor at night,
sometimes when the air conditioning isnt working, it shows the depth of your
commitment, Caison says. Other organizations tell us they wish they could get
as much out of their people as we get out of our volunteers, but that goes back
to our love for the Lord and our commitment to the ministry Hes called us
Put to the test
The commitment of disaster relief volunteers was severely tested in 2004,
the year the hurricane season created the biggest natural disaster in American
history, according to the American Red Cross. And in terms of logistics, it was
the largest response to a disaster relief effort in Southern Baptist
Wed never faced the challenge of evacuating disaster relief units and
sending them back inseveral times in a row, Burton says. We went in after
Tropical Storm Bonnie hit Florida on August 13, then had to leave because
Charlie came in a few hours later. We went back, set up, then here came Ivan.
We evacuated again, went back, and then Jeanne came in. We were stretched in
ways wed never been stretched before.
Volunteers swarmed in from as far away as the
American Northwest. They cleared debris from 8,345 yards and prepared more than
2.4 million meals. They helped storm-devastated families shovel mud from their
living rooms, and they covered leaking roofs. Specially equipped trailer units
cleaned 4,212 loads of laundry and provided 32,300 hot showers for weary
parents and children. Chaplains counseled one hurricane victim after another.
The teams led hundreds to faith in Christ.
A legacy of hope
Southern Baptist ministry evangelism efforts through disaster relief have
come a long way from their origins in the mid-1960s, when a few Texas Baptist
Men fed hurricane victims from the back of a Datsun station wagon.
Weve seen tremendous growth in just the past 10
yearsfrom 3,000 trained volunteers to 28,500 and from 95 mobile units to 497,
recalls Mickey Caison. Weve gone from feeding people and doing chain-saw work
to a wide range of effective ministries. The new laundry and shower units were
a necessity during the Florida disasters, and were going to see more chaplains
providing crisis and grief counseling in the future, too. Were getting ready to
go online with an Internet resource to help churches pray for congregations in
areas affected by a disaster.
All the growth has demanded that we get better at
coordinating the activities, and the expectations our partners have of us are
greater, too, he says. The Federal Emergency Management Administration, the
American Red Cross, the Salvation Armyall are looking for us to step in quickly
after a disaster and to sustain our efforts. This year proved we can sustain
what we do.
While the North American Mission Board helps train volunteers and
coordinates the work of units from different states, the heart of the ministry
is in each Baptist state convention.
Disaster relief, in some ways, is the most tangible expression of Southern
Baptists at their best, Burton says. Were very good at sending
missionaries11,000 of them across the United States and around the worldbut we
do that from a distance.
With disaster relief, Southern Baptists come together and work side by side.
We wear the same uniforms and go into an area with the same purposean attitude
of How may I serve you?
A team effort
Were seeing a growing unity among disaster relief workers from different
states who have a shared experience of ministry, Burton says.
In 2004 North Carolinas disaster response started even earlier than
We actually started August 3 with Hurricane Alex, says Gaylon Moss, disaster
relief director for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina. A lot of
people dont remember that storm because it only affected the Outer Banks of
North Carolina. We actually had to respond to six storms10 disasters in all
last year. North Carolina Disaster Relief units responded to the needs in
Florida as well as North Carolina.
Besides feeding people and clearing trees, weve helped families repair and
rebuild their homes, provided mercy child care, washed clothes and purified
water, he adds. It kept us very busy right into mid-November. It was a long,
It was a long year for Florida volunteers as well. There, more than 75
percent of the 800 trained volunteers who responded were themselves victims of
a hurricane at some point, according to Fritz Wilson, disaster relief director
for the Florida Baptist Convention. At least 100 congregations ministered in
their own neighborhoods, despite the fact they had suffered from the storms as
With the repeated strikes from the storms, though, it got harder and harder
to keep responding, Wilson says. It was great to see the outpouring of help
from other states. Our Southern Baptist brothers and sisters came in our moment
of crisis and helped carry our load. We had to stand down our operations three
times and start back up after each storm, but each time we knew people were
willing to come back.
Making a difference
That willingness to serve translates directly into changed hearts and
We had volunteers who went to homes and found senior adults still hiding
inside, afraid to come out, Wilson says. When they got to them and offered to
help, they said it was literally an answer to prayer.
One of his most memorable moments was after Hurricane Charlie. That was the
first one, and at the time we didnt know what all was coming. We were set up at
South Biscayne Baptist Church in Northport. A lady and her mother, who was in
her eighties, sought me out, because they wanted to thank me for the work the
volunteers were doing. They said they had tried to get help from two or three
other groups, but it was the Baptists who came in and got the tree off the
house and patched the hole. She said she just felt compelled to come and say
Almost a month later, as Hurricane Ivan bore down on the Gulf coast, 115
disaster relief units began evacuating. As the convoys of volunteers headed out
of harms way, people in passing cars held up handwritten thank-you signs and
blew kisses to the volunteers.
As he climbed into his battered truck, one resident of Lake City, Florida,
told a feeding team: Thank God for you guys with the hot meals. I really needed
a hot meal tonight.
People otherwise closed to Christian witness change their attitude when a
Southern Baptist crew starts cutting up fallen trees on their block, Wilson
People today are skeptical of church and religion. The first question were
always asked is Why are you here? he says. When we tell them were just here to
help and that were not charging anything, they open up. A lot of times they
will pitch in and help us or do things for us, like making sure weve got water
When we can show Gods love in a practical waywith no strings attachedan
unbeliever begins to see things from a different perspective. Suddenly,
Christianity isnt just a bunch of people sitting in church on Sunday; its a
touchpoint that opens doors.
Mark Kelly is a writer living in Madison, Tennessee. Jon Walker is a writer
living in Hendersonville, Tennessee.
A Southern Baptist Convention entity supported by the Cooperative Program and theAnnie Armstrong Easter Offering® ©Copyright 2013 North American Mission Board, SBC