After wildfire, pastor's widow has unwavering faith

Construction has begun on a new home for Ruth Martin and her daughter Debbie Gillespie. More volunteers are needed to complete the work. (Connie Williams photo)
Construction has begun on a new home for Ruth Martin and her daughter Debbie Gillespie. More volunteers are needed to complete the work. (Connie Williams photo)

GATLINBURG, Tenn. (KT) - Ruth Martin isn't likely to ever forget Nov. 28, 2016 - the day she became homeless.

The 91-year-old widow of a Tennessee Baptist pastor left her home of 40-plus years that night with just the clothes she was wearing.

As wildfire surrounded her home atop a mountain road overlooking the city of Gatlinburg, she and her son and daughter, who also had houses on the property, did what has come naturally over the years - they prayed.

With their cars blocked by fallen trees, they did not know if they could even get off the mountain. Martin's daughter, Debbie Gillespie, said she prayed, "Lord, if You want us off this mountain, You will have to send someone to get us." A moment after that prayer, she saw the headlights of a truck just a few houses down the mountain.

Martin's son, Mark, ran down to find a family evacuating from a rental house. The family willingly gave them space in their loaded truck with only the caveat of "we have to leave now."

What sustained the elderly Martin that night and in the months after the fire, is what has sustained her for her entire life -- a deep faith rooted in her love for and trust in Jesus Christ.

Martin, known as "Mama Ruth" to family and friends, said she learned to trust the Lord not long after her husband, the late Clyde Martin, entered the ministry shortly after they were married in 1950.

Clyde Martin, who died in 2013, ministered for 70 years, serving as pastor of numerous Baptist churches in eastern Tennessee, including Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg, which was destroyed by fire and is in the rebuilding process.

Times were hard, Ruth Martin recalled. Pastors and evangelists didn't get rich back then, she acknowledged with a chuckle. "When things get tough, you learn to trust in the Lord. He never lets you down."

That faith she learned then helped her in the aftermath of the wildfire when her son Mark returned to the mountaintop to find all three homes reduced to rubble and ashes. It continued even as she learned she did not have enough insurance to help rebuild on the site where she and her husband had moved in 1975.

"The Lord proves Himself sufficient," Martin affirmed.

John and Kaye Thomas, who coordinated Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief efforts after the wildfire and are helping with rebuilding efforts, learned of the Martins' plight through First Baptist Church in Sevierville, where both the Thomases and Martins are members.

They sent teams in to help sift through ashes and chainsaw teams that spent about three weeks cutting the numerous trees that had fallen on the property amid a series of wildfires across 16,000-plus acres in the Smoky Mountains from late November through mid-December in 2016, claiming 14 lives and damaging or destroying some 2,000 structures.

Kaye Thomas discussed with the family the need to obtain a line of credit before beginning to rebuild. "We didn't know what we'd do," son Mark acknowledged, noting that they had insurance but it was not nearly enough. "We knew we would trust the Lord."

They began to explore credit options "but the Lord shut the door everywhere we went," Thomas recalled.

"I'm having faith in their faith until my faith is strong enough," Kaye Thomas said with a laugh.

As people heard about the Martins' needs, gifts of money and materials began to come in. As a result, First Baptist Church and Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief have led rebuilding efforts on two homes -- one for Mark and one for Ruth and Debbie.

The unexpected gifts are no surprise to the Martin family. "My spiritual family came to my rescue when I needed it," Ruth Martin said. "I don't know what we would have done without disaster relief teams and local volunteers.

"God's family is going to take care of each other," she affirmed.

Martin is a strong believer in the promise found in Romans 8:28: "We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God, who are called according to His purpose" (CSB).

"There was nothing good about that fire," Martin said, "but when I look at the good that has come out of it and see what God has accomplished, I'm just grateful for what He has done."

Daughter Debbie Gillespie agreed. "God will take care of His own. He has proven it over and over and He uses His children to be His hands and feet."

Gillespie said their plight will make them more sensitive than ever to the needs of others. "We know what it's like to be left without clothes and not know where you will go the next day."

She, along with her mother and brother, are grateful for those who have helped and will help.

"We pray that people will feel the presence of the Lord when they step on that mountain," she said.


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