Faithful volunteers shine in aftermath of Hurricane Harvey

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SEABROOK, Texas (BP) - Melissa del Flora took it upon herself to organize meals for Hurricane Harvey survivors occupying 40 rooms at the Quality Inn in Seabrook, Texas.

Even though food and drinks arrived for a month, del Flora grew weary. Through a random conversation with one of the evacuees, she learned that Baptists could help lift the load.

Del Flora contacted Susan Bumpas, director of preschool and children's ministries at nearby Nassau Bay Baptist Church. She and her husband Bill, a Southern Baptists of Texas Convention media consultant, knew that Arkansas and Arizona disaster relief teams were feeding mud-out volunteers staying at University Baptist Church in the Clear Lake area.

The DR groups readily agreed to prepare 100 meals a day for the families at the Quality Inn, and church member Dana Rust began organizing delivery of the meals by Nassau Bay and other local church volunteers.

Rust and Bumpas both praised the Quality Inn's manager, Moses Retiwala, for facilitating the feeding by allowing use of the hotel's breakfast room.

Retiwala, a Muslim from the Indian state of Gujarat who has lived in Texas 17 years, told the Southern Baptist TEXAN he was glad his hotel could house the evacuees. Retiwala said he had gone to secondary school in India with Muslims, Hindi, Christian and Farsi friends, adding, "We grew up like a family. Today we live all over the world and are still good friends."

Bumpas said evacuees at the hotel "were overwhelmed when they heard folks from Arizona and Arkansas had cooked the meals for them. Many wanted to know why we were doing this for them. We were able to tell them that God had not forgotten them and there were people that love and care for them."

When the Houston Downtown Food Bank sent 10 pallets of tuna, applesauce, candy bars, Pringles, MREs (meals ready to eat), soaps, body washes, Rust and volunteers packed them in boxes to distribute to other area hotels full of evacuees over the weekend of Oct. 7.

"We [at Nassau Bay] are not alone. Other churches … have done what we are doing, found a hotel and tried to help them out," Rust said. The church provided meals through Oct. 10, when FEMA funds for hotel lodging ran out.

Nassau Bay also used its gym as a distribution center "and ministered to hundreds of families that way," Bumpas said. "We also sent teams to help clear out flooded homes."

Faith in action

Jim Richards, executive director of the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention, said his visits to Houston and south Texas "broke my heart as I saw the suffering. Theological facts are not enough to comfort the hurting. Faith in action is necessary."

Writing in the TEXAN, Richards said Baptists were "on the ground cooking food, clearing debris, cleaning houses and washing laundry" soon after Harvey's landfall on Aug. 25. The SBTC is one of two Baptist conventions in the state within the SBC, with both the SBTC and Baptist General Convention of Texas having extensive disaster relief networks. Each convention is a key part of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief that has responded to Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria.

Among the SBTC, Richards reported, convention staff members attempted to contact "every single one of the 764 impacted churches within days of the storm's landfall in order to pray with them and see how we could assist them."

"The greater Southern Baptist family also rallied to Texas," Richards recounted. "Many state conventions sent their disaster relief teams. The North American Mission Board with the new Send Relief effort came alongside the SBTC. Churches by the hundreds in Texas and beyond came on their own. I heard over and over about being the 'hands and feet' of Jesus. First responders, government agencies and the National Guard were used of the Lord as well.

"Generous giving toward Harvey victims has been amazing," Richards continued. "Truckloads of supplies have poured into the affected areas. Cleanup materials collected by churches through the SBTC 'Buckets for Harvey' have blessed thousands. People from across the United States have given online at www.sbtexas.com. SBTC churches and individuals sent checks. Several state conventions provided funds. Alabama Baptists under the leadership of Executive Director Rick Lance sent over $100,000. Every penny designated for Harvey will be invested in the lives of those impacted. Not one cent will be used for administrative costs."

Yet, he noted, "The financial impact of this disaster on our churches and convention will be significant. Six of the top 10 Cooperative Program (CP) giving churches (in dollars) are in Houston. If their facilities were not damaged, they had members who lost their homes or jobs. Those churches may experience some financial difficulties.

"It is crucial that other SBTC churches continue with regular Cooperative Program giving. For those who are not participating in CP giving, now this is a good time to start. The infrastructure of disaster relief is dependent on CP," Richards noted. "Having personnel in the field touching lives is possible because of the Cooperative Program. Because of CP, church planters in the storm area will not miss a support check and pastors who were in Harvey's path will get help. We are in Kingdom work together."

Youth fill the gap

The breadth of Baptist ministry after Harvey continues to be reported, with the TEXAN noting, for example, the work of young people in several stories.

First Baptist Church Mauriceville in south Texas took on 18 inches to three feet of floodwater in their auditorium and surrounding buildings as did a number of members.

"[A] lot of people were tied up with their own homes, or their family and friend's homes," said Kevin Brown, First Baptist's pastor. "The youth were able to fill a gap and help with a great need."

Working from 8 in the morning to 5 in the afternoon, a dozen middle and high school students helped pull soggy carpet and sheetrock from the church buildings so that the congregation could meet on the first Sunday in September. The youth also handed out water and supplies to Harvey survivors in the community.

Eighth grader Kaitlyn Ewing said she learned anew "to stop thinking only of myself, but to think about all of the others that need our assistance and have lost everything. It's a humbling experience to be able to help not only the church, but also being able to hand out supplies, meals and water to people who come by."

High school senior Luke Hanson said, "Being a member of this church, I felt called to contribute to the body of believers and to Christ by my service through working at the church building," while high school junior Caleb Weaver said, "I believe that through our service, it is showing others that we truly love the people around us."

Brown said the church has worked to grow their students by involving them in other community events and projects in the past.

"There is an intentionality to this," the pastor said. "Sometimes we think of youth as another group of citizens in the Kingdom, but we want them integrated in the whole body of Christ and the church. I believe that when you see youth working and serving alongside adults, something transformational happens in which they grow spiritually."

The youth "enjoy not just being together having fun, but they enjoy the work," Brown said, "and when it is all said and done, they look back and say, 'I had a part in that.'"

Hanson, meanwhile, said he believes God is moving in Mauriceville and surrounding Orange County in a big way.

"I believe we, as in the churches, had started to grow stagnant in our outreach and this has jumpstarted our presence in the communities," he said. "I believe God handed us all an entire county here and said, 'Go minister and fulfill the Great Commission' and now it is our turn to listen and do the work in His name."

Collegians deployed

From Jacksonville College, owned and operated by the Baptist Missionary Association of Texas and affiliated with the SBTC, four teams of student and staff volunteers worked in Conroe, Houston and Port Arthur in debris removal and food distribution after receiving SBTC DR training a week after Harvey's onslaught.

Randy Decker, director of the college's music program who took members of the choir to Conroe, said, "Things get real in a hurry. There are no barriers when you are meeting people in desperate need. These homeowners look you in the eye. They want to thank you, they want to hug you, they want to cry with you and they want to pray with you. It is intense and yet it is tremendously satisfying."

Assistant men's basketball coach Louis Truscott led members of the basketball team, accompanied by college President Mike Smith, to Houston. "Seeing the damage as we were driving into the disaster area was unbelievable," Truscott said of his hometown. "It was like seeing a war zone."

"God has transformed the lives of those receiving aid," Smith said, "and He has most certainly transformed every life that has taken part in the recovery effort. Sometimes it is during the most difficult times that we can see God's goodness and grace most clearly. This is one of those times."

The SEND Relief initiative of the North American Mission Board sent its initial teams of collegians from across the U.S. -- in this case from the University of Mobile and University of Alabama at Huntsville -- to the Beaumont-based Golden Triangle Baptist Network over the Oct. 7 weekend.

Working alongside seasoned SBTC volunteers, the collegians will provide "young shoulders and backs" to help, said Terry Wright, pastor of First Baptist Church in Vidor. "Instead of doing a house every two or three days, we now hope to be doing a house every day" for cleanup and recovery.

"There is still significant work to be done in southeast Texas. I don't know if we are even halfway there," Wright said. With a number of citizens able to handle their own recovery needs, he added, "We focus on folks who can't do the work."

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