What looks like a to-do list for a busy Saturday is in fact a list of opportunities for anyone ministering through disaster relief. When hurricanes, floods, fires, tornadoes, or other catastrophes strike, mundane tasks become primary concerns. When survivors are dumbfounded by the long-term impact of a few minutes of destruction, volunteers are on the spot to provide helping hands, listening ears, and praying hearts.
Southern Baptists (through both Texas Baptist Men & the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention) locally train volunteers and coordinate efforts in providing prompt assistance to disaster victims. Fully equipped mobile units of trained & certified volunteers can be on location within hours providing hot meals, drinkable water, recovery of homes, emergency repair of churches, emergency child care services, shower & laundry services, communications, chaplains, counselors, and a personal witness for Christ.
BASTROP, TX: Living near the coast in a hurricane zone, volunteers from UBA churches are often on the alert for news of potential flooding. Unexpectedly, it was wildfires in September that consumed 34,000 acres and 1,600 homes, destroying 95% of Bastrop State Park and 12 million cubic feet of trees and activating mobile units to provide almost immediate relief.
An estimated 30 TBM volunteers cooked 3 meals per day for 1,000 firefighters and first responders. The first shift started cooking at 2:30 am and the last shift finished at 11:00 pm. Three shower and laundry units offered much appreciated relief from the charcoal smell attached to clothes and skin. And once the fires were out, Clean Out Units met devastated homeowners to assess the damage and Chain Saw Units utilized the first ever portable sawmill (VIDEO) to redeem the charred trees as usable lumber for porches, doghouses and storage units.
University Baptist Church, whose Disaster Relief Ministry is affiliated with Texas Baptist Men Disaster Relief Ministry, is one of those crucial local churches that issues the "call outs" when disasters strike and maintains a mobile unit ready to respond.
UBC's Disaster Relief ministry served the Bastrop area after the fires by cutting down over 200 trees on five different home sites. (see photo gallery)
This was far from their first response to disaster. While serving as a Red Cross staging location during Hurricane Ike recovery, members of University witnessed firsthand the power of serving as Christ's hands in the midst of disaster relief and recovery.
Alan and Bobbie Wallace were relatively new University members when Ike came through. Because Alan was part of an Emergency Response Team in his workplace, he was able to see the damage in his Kemah neighborhood early and quickly identified that while his home was relatively unharmed, his neighbors needed his help. After clearing and cutting trees there, he heard about University's work with TBM and joined those efforts. A San Leon couple in their 80s cemented Alan's conviction that he had found his place in ministry when, after assisting them with cleaning up, removing sheet rock and mud, he realized, "In three days I got more out of it from them sharing the Lord with me than I gave. I knew this was something I wanted to be involved in."
Seeing the power of portability, Wallace soon created designs for cleanout and chain saw trailers. He shared those plans with other University members and longtime disaster relief advocates who were quickly becoming his mentors -- John Lilly and Butch Peters. With their guidance and the interest and assistance of Lance Stephens and Landon Moore the church took on the task of making the two 18 ft. trailers a reality.
Those two units are now housed on University property and another food unit stands ready at another storage facility. A communications unit has just been formed led by Kyle Tupin.
"When I hear of disaster on the news, I turn to Kyle. We pray for the people who are involved. Then if we get the call from TBM to go, we pray that we have the people. Right now we have 370-plus people trained as Yellow Caps and 30-40 chain saw/cleanout/communications leaders," reported Wallace. (Cap colors are ways to designate training and leadership during the relief efforts. Yellow marks a trained volunteer while Blue and White Caps are leaders.)
The large number of available trained volunteers come from the University congregation as well as other area churches as well. For instance, within hours members from University, FBC Texas City, FBC Pearland, Spring Memorial Baptist, Bear Creek, and Seaside were mobilized for Bastrop.
Groups of 4-8 are sent out at one time and usually for a week with another team relieving them for a second week.
Not only does University get to share in immediate response, members assist with training as well. Wallace remembers one of his first experiences helping youth know what to do during a spring break focused on Ike recovery in Galveston.
"I was able to help a group out of Tyler, Texas. These teens were doing Ike cleanup and they had had to pay to be there to cover their expenses," noted an obviously moved Wallace. "Our kids are our future and that's my heart. You hear so many bad things about kids but not the good things. To see these kids come together in Christ's name - having paid to be there! It's awesome."
Wallace's wife Bobbie joined him during the Bastrop response. With the encouragement that she would find her place of ministry just as he had done, she soon became part of the food unit providing 1,000s of meals. The prayer, bible study, and opportunities to hear from believers and share Christ's love with victims have ensured that the Wallaces will continue to use vacations, long weekends, and -- soon retirement -- to continue their work in disaster relief.
Jeff Waldo, Associate Pastor, Discipleship, for University Baptist and moderator for UBA, sees disaster relief as a way to connect believers with a variety of skill sets to projects where they can see God at work. After witnessing the growing enthusiasm for relief and recovery post-Ike, he's tried to clear the path for members to follow their heart - while receiving the training they need to be a calming presence in the midst of chaos.
"To do disaster relief, you have to be comfortable with ambiguity and flexibility. If you think you're cooking chicken for dinner and you get a delivery of no chicken and macaroni and cheese instead, then you better be ready to make mac and cheese!" noted Waldo.
While the Disaster Relief Units provide a trained and coordinated response, there is also a place for the spontaneous, individual response in times of such severe crisis. Having gained experience with disaster relief through organizing a shelter at her church, Willow Meadows, following Hurricane Katrina, Susan Brock knew that she had to be a part of ministering to victims of the Bastrop fires. She put out a plea through church communication channels and her own email network and soon was shopping for needed items, loaded down with the essentials and on her way to the affected areas.
"The families of the 1,600 homes that were completely destroyed have endured a huge collective loss. Not just toothbrushes and hairdryers, but wedding dresses, family jewelry, heirloom pieces, photo albums and negatives, children's mementos and sadly, some pets and livestock. The good news we found on our trip through Smithville and Bastrop was that the people of these communities were bonded together, helping one another, and grateful for every single item that we unloaded from the car," she reported.
New pillows, blankets, toiletries, school supplies, clothing, medications, diapers, baby items, and more were delivered to the victim distribution centers in Smithville and Bastrop. Checks were left with the Smithville and Bastrop Ministerial Alliances.
Knowing the toll continued care can take on the volunteers, Brock also ensured there would be treats for them as well.
"The volunteers LOVED the cookies!" she explained. "In Bastrop, we brought homemade cookies, cupcakes, eye drops, work gloves, batteries, beef jerky and Gatorade to the firefighters."
In reporting to Willow Meadows after her journey, Brock quoted a scripture very familiar to volunteers doing disaster relief -- Galatians 6:2. "Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ."
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