'Phenomenal' DR response; 'overwhelming' tasks loom

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AUSTIN, Texas (BP) - Hurricane Harvey evacuees in a mega-shelter southeast of Austin are being fed with meals prepared by Southern Baptists of Texas Disaster Relief volunteers at the Austin-area First Baptist Church in Pflugerville.


The food, provided and distributed by the American Red Cross, is transported to the shelter from the church. The evacuees, originally housed in Austin's convention center and other shelters across the city, began moving to the mega-shelter in an industrial park on Friday, Sept. 1.


In the Houston area, SBTC Executive Director Jim Richards visited a number of churches and described the response he's witnessed by Southern Baptists as "phenomenal," the Southern Baptist TEXAN reported on Labor Day.


"It's incredible to see the cooperation of churches," Richards said, "and how people have risen to the occasion to do the work."


In the days, weeks and months ahead, Richards said he hopes churches and volunteers maintain unity in the relief efforts at hand. "Our greatest need is to come together and stay together for the Gospel," he said. "We want to help people who are hurting and we want to minister to their physical needs, but the greatest need they have is the Gospel."


Tom Billings, director of missions for the Houston-area Union Baptist Association, also reported on several church visits in a Facebook post on Labor Day.


"One of the more remarkable stories -- and they are all remarkable -- is Humble's First Baptist Church," Billings noted.


Two feet of water poured into the church when the San Jacinto River poured over its banks and sent water throughout local neighborhoods, Billings reported.


"Everything on the first floors of their four buildings had to go. I visited the church earlier in the week and saw volunteers and staff taking baby cribs, children's toys, desks, chairs, all the things they used daily to minister and piling it in the parking lot.


"Driving into the parking lot Sunday morning I saw the trash ... but behind it was a huge tent," Billings wrote. "People were piling in carrying lawn chairs preparing for worship. The juxtaposition of the pile of trash and people coming to worship wasn't lost on me. Harvey dealt a devastating blow, but it was not fatal."


The church's worship center now is "stacked with food and other supplies to be given to the community. The tent they were using for worship on Sunday would become a distribution center for the community on Monday," Billings wrote.


DR in Austin


At the Austin mega-shelter, fire, police and medical units are on site. Air-conditioned tents are provided to serve meals, with other tents available to house evacuees' pets. Austin Capital Metro spokesperson Mariette Hummel said a bus stop will be added to help shelter residents access services, retail outlets and medical facilities, the Austin American Statesman reported.


First Baptist Pflugerville's DR team set up mass feeding operations in the church's parking lot last week and prepared 1,880 hot meals Sept. 1, 2,320 the following day and 1,675 on Sunday, with work continuing as the team remains the only source of meals for Austin-area evacuees.


A Baptist laundry unit, meanwhile, is operating at the mega-shelter; its eight washer/dryer combinations handled 119 loads on Sunday and were running nonstop Monday. The unit is from the Kansas-Nebraska Baptist Convention and being operated by three-person SBTC volunteer crews.


At Pflugerville, around 15-18 SBTC DR volunteers from First Baptist are preparing the shelter’s meals, education pastor Mike Northen, an SBTC DR unit director, told the TEXAN.


Northen complimented the Red Cross team working with the Pflugerville crew, including the on-site mass feeding director Dave Waldrip, noting that the feeding team received equipment and supplies faster than ever before.


"It usually takes us all week to get operational," Northen added. "This time we did it in three days."


When asked how long the church planned to prepare meals for mass feeding in Austin, Northen replied, "As long as it takes. I don't think we really know how long we will be operating. From the Red Cross' view, it depends on the shelter population. The city of Austin health inspector told me today [Sept. 1] that there may be another 2,500 people coming. They are prepared for that many. We are the only kitchen feeding so far."


Muriel Parker was among the SBTC DR volunteers at the church, performing administrative work including scheduling volunteers. She complimented kitchen crew chief Shirley Carter and the rest of the volunteers who began meal preparations outside as temperatures soared to the mid-90s.


Parker showed a picture of her 13-year-old grandson doing cleanup work at Farrington Mission in Houston's impoverished Fifth Ward as part of Northeast Houston Baptist Church's relief efforts. Parker's son-in-law Nathan Lino is the church's pastor and president of the SBTC.


The mass feeding unit at Pflugerville is one of the original units built by the SBTC after Hurricane Katrina, Northen said.


The response ahead


Since Aug. 31, SBTC feeding teams have prepared more than 25,000 meals distributed by the Red Cross to survivors and first responders along the Texas Gulf Coast and southeast Texas, including a unit at Clay Road Baptist Church in northwest Houston.


The unit's director, Ralph Britt, said the kitchen is equipped to prepare 5,000 hot meals a day and is outfitted with a shower and laundry trailer.


Britt described the widespread devastation wrought by Harvey as "massive." In addition to meeting the immediate physical needs of the local community, he said DR volunteers also get the opportunity to share the love of Christ with countless hurting people, many of whom lost homes due to flooding.


Gary Ledbetter, in a Sept. 1 column in the TEXAN, noted that disaster relief response to Hurricanes Katrina and Rita 12 years ago strengthened the convention. "Our churches began to expect of one another the kind of community and support a fellowship of churches should be able to provide. That implied promise was tested and grew into expanded church planting, missionary partnerships, evangelistic efforts, church revitalization and myriad church health resources a state convention should offer."


Hurricane Harvey, Ledbetter wrote, "will touch all of us, and it should. The world has seen bigger catastrophes, but this one is ours. Southeast Texas is a region of wealth, growth and strong churches that send missionary resources around the world. We, all of us, need Houston and her Christian community back up and running. But for now, they need us."


Ledbetter suggested, "If the churches that are still high and dry will suffer a fraction as much as their sister churches farther south and east, we can hasten the recovery of this essential portion of this essential state. Maybe your church is like mine and has seen a slow year of giving. Now, let's imagine our churches transported to Corpus Christi in early September 2017. How ominous does your actual financial situation look compared to that imagination?"


Billings, in his Facebook post, told of his visits among flood survivors. "The accumulated possessions of a lifetime -- we now call it trash -- were piled in yards all along the neighborhoods. Unless you've seen and experienced it firsthand, it's hard to describe. Just the thought of it, though, is enough to break one's heart.


"While everyone I talked with spoke of hope, the weariness in their voices betrayed the emotional and physical impact recovery takes on us all. In a word, this is overwhelming. We can and will remain hopeful, but this is hard.


"One of the great fears expressed to me was 'What are we going to do for workers when everyone has to return to work?'" Billings wrote, posing his "big ask": "Can you mobilize people in your communities to come to Houston to help? We need people. Sure, we need money and prayer. But we need people who can come and help. If you do [plan to come], work through your church, association or state convention's disaster recovery groups."


Among those compiling a national registry of potential volunteers is the North American Mission Board at https://www.namb.net/send-relief/disaster-relief/hurricane-harvey.


The Southern Baptists of Texas Convention in one of two Baptist conventions in the state affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, the other being the Baptist General Convention of Texas.


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Compiled by Baptist Press senior editor Art Toalston with reporting by Jane Rodgers and JC Davies of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention.

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