Any church can participate in disaster relief, Baptists are told | Print |

By Bob Perkins

ATLANTA-To test how prepared churches are to face natural disasters, panels offered suggestions for participants during a special interest session at the Celebration of a New Baptist Covenant meeting Feb. 1.

For example, conference leaders asked participants if they have "go bags" in their churches that are easily accessible for church members in the event of an immediate forced evacuation.

From New York City following Sept. 11, 2001, to the Gulf Coast following Hurricane Katrina, panelists shared their experiences organizing church responses to disasters. Willard Ashley, founding pastor of Abundant Joy Community Church in New York, said disaster can strike at any time and churches should be prepared.

"Go bags" are a collection of items a person might need in the event of an evacuation during a disaster. New York City residents are strongly encouraged to prepare one for every household, and each should include clothing, important documents, bottled water or nonperishable food items.

"We live in the retailing capital of the world, but no one bothered to ask the people who make these items how they would design one," Ashley said. They developed the idea of a "go bag" with a built-in solar-panel that could recharge a radio or cell phone so people can help to protect the environment.

Richard Brunson, executive director of North Carolina Baptist Men, told participants any willing church can participate in disaster relief. As part of the North American Baptist Fellowship Disaster Relief Network, more than 30 different conventions and organizations are all organized. In the case of Katrina, his organization was heavily involved in aid to Gulfport, Miss.

There are three phases of relief that include mass care, recovery and long-term building. While mass care involves immediate needs such as food, water and shelter, it mostly involves trained volunteers and heavy equipment.

"State or national organizations are best-suited for this phase because of the training requirements for volunteers, and the equipment needed, such as water tankers," Brunson said.  "But the recovery phase can be handled very well by local churches."

Brunson said the best way for a church to participate is to put together a disaster recovery trailer stocked with a generator, hand tools, power tools and other items. Churches can have an event where they accept donations for the items or purchase them outright, usually for about $1,000.

"Using the trailer, volunteers can help clean up after floods-do what they call 'mud outs' or tear outs," Brunson said. "Some disaster victims have to rely on unscrupulous contractors who charge a fortune just to remove fallen trees. If volunteers can come in and do these things in the name of Jesus, it makes a big difference."

Brunson said one of the biggest requirements for church disaster volunteers is being self contained. In many of the natural disaster areas, there is no electricity and no water.

"If you are not self-contained, you can't help," he said. "You really can't depend upon anybody else. Working in Gulfport, we had to ship food in from North Carolina because they ran out of food and there was no refrigeration."

Mary Landon Darden lives in Waco, Tex., but she felt a calling from God to open a shelter in her church, Seventh and James Baptist Church, for Katrina survivors. Although she said it's a 10-hour drive to New Orleans, she convinced her pastor and other church members that they needed to begin work.

"Volunteers from our church converted Sunday School classrooms into place for families to live," Darden said. "Within 24 hours, we had 56 people in our church."

Darden became a catalyst for action in her city. Seeing that the need was far greater than the capacity of her church, she helped organize a meeting where 10 other churches agreed to open shelters, and other churches sent support and donations. They found housing for more than 510 people.

"We would have never made it without our partnerships," Darden said. "We got help from many places, but the church is the only institution that could help with a disaster like this."

Darden said the experience forever changed her and her church. "It built a fire in our church with the Holy Spirit and bonded us all closer together."

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