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Nation's largest mass migration since Civil War

Georgia Baptists showing evacuees "extraordinary kindness"

 

Norm Miller/BP

Crashing the walls - Hurricane Katrina, with a surge of fury, punched through the walls of First Baptist Church in Gulfport, Miss.

Like living in the calm before a storm, in early September Georgia Baptists watched the aftermath of the Gulf Coast hurricane disaster unfold on nightly newscasts. For 10 days they stay glued to their television sets and watched in horror as New Orleans residents struggled for their lives against rising floodwaters that slowly choked their city to death.

It all seemed so surreal, so far away. Life in Georgia was peaceful and calm and far removed from the harsh reality.

Now that calm has passed and a storm of a different nature - busloads of tired evacuees flooding into the state - has washed upon the Georgia landscape. From Thomasville and Norman Park in the south, through Atlanta and eventually rising as far north as the Georgia Baptist Conference Center at Toccoa, families - some broken in half, some whole, but all exhausted and stunned and wandering in a daze of bewilderment - are being thrown on the mercy of the state's resources.

Yet, in increasingly tight economic times with gasoline prices doubling in the short term to nearly $4 a gallon, Georgia Baptists are giving freely to those less fortunate.

As of Sept. 12, the state convention's conference center at Norman Park was housing 260 at total capacity and the center at Toccoa was expecting up to 700 evacuees. Conferences at Norman Park have been cancelled at least through mid-October as evacuees are moved into more permanent housing elsewhere.

The association camp at Flint River near Griffin had accepted 45 evacuees over the weekend and was expecting to reach capacity of 160 later this week, said Camp Director Shondi Moody. The camp had offers of help from 400 volunteers from most of the 51 churches in Flint River Association and neighboring associations.

Within hours of the first busloads of evacuees arriving at Norman Park on Sept. 4, the gym began filling with items needed by people who had clung to life for days on the roofs of their homes. The conference center has since been unofficially named Camp Hope, said Director Bill Townes.

Responding to a statewide appeal from GBC Exe-cutive Director J. Robert White, churches took up emergency offerings on the Sunday of the Labor Day weekend. But the traditionally low attendance Sunday did not stop churches such as First Thomasville from digging deep to help those needing spiritual and physical assistance.

Joe Westbury

Members at First Church of Thomasville are representative of congregations which have opened their hearts and homes - and the Wednesday night supper - to Gulf Coast evacuees. Shown at a recent dinner are two families - Logan Turner age 9, Lanie Turner age 11, and mother Toni Turner, background, of Biloxi, Miss.; and A.J. Rippy, 20 months, and his mother, Jodee Rippy, of Gulf Port, Miss.

"Our people had no warning that we were going to take up a special offering for Georgia Baptist disaster relief, so we didn't know how they would respond," says Pastor Dan Spencer.

"We took the offering - while I secretly hoped that it would not negatively effect the giving to our budget - and were very surprised on Tuesday, after the holiday, when we counted slightly more than $51,000 donated in cash and checks. And, to my personal embarrassment, we easily met our operating budget offering. The Lord really taught me a lesson that day."

Churches of all sizes have since made similar sacrifices as they seek to show Christian compassion to tens of thousands suddenly found homeless and moving into their communities. Metro Atlanta is already home to more than 25,000 evacuees, say Red Cross officials.

While cash contributions are important, pastors point to the individuals in their congregations who are stepping up to the plate with unlimited generosity. Martha Fox, a member of Calvary Baptist Church in Tifton, represents those who are giving their time and resources to present a Christian witness.

While sizing shoes for evacuees in the Norman Park gym, Fox related how she was a product of Georgia Baptist's love and felt it was time to share that love with others.

"I was raised at the Children's Home in Baxley from age 4 to 17 and will always appreciate what they did for me and my brothers. Georgia Baptists paid for all of us to attend college right here when the campus was known at Norman Park Junior College.

"I'm not doing anything special today, I'm just returning some of the goodness that was given to me as a child. I'm so proud of how Georgia Baptists are responding to these people today who have lost everything. They will remember this generosity for the rest of their lives," she said.

Kathy Allen of First Thomasville also responded in kind. She took the initiative to help her church minister to evacuees who were beginning to show up in the hotels and restaurants in the city.

"I felt a real burden to help any way I could. God put these people on our doorstep so I felt the least we could do is find a way to minister to them. We printed up flyers offering the church's assistance and I took them to eight hotels, asking managers to allow evacuees to call us if someone needed help. Within four hours we began receiving calls," she explains.

The church has since been able to provide housing and meals for some families who left with only the clothes on their backs. Gift packs - consisting of $100 Wal-Mart gift cards, a $50 gas card and $50 in cash - have also been distributed to documented evacuees.

The morning of the special offering, Spencer changed his sermon text to reflect on the Apostle Paul's shipwreck. As he focused on Acts 28:2, he discussed the biblical account of the storm at sea, the shipwreck, and the generosity Paul and his fellow prisoners and travelers received at the hands of total strangers. Spencer drew a modern day parallel from the passage of scripture.

"In recounting the travails of the shipwreck off the cost of Malta, the Apostle Paul made this telling observation: 'The natives showed us extraordinary kindness.' I believe in my heart that is the message for Georgia Baptists today, and it makes me proud that we as a convention are responding with a similar level of love and generosity.

"I think God has given us this opportunity to show the evacuees not just good Southern hospitality but 'extraordinary kindness.' As believers we can do no less."

Joe Westbury

Baby food items donated by Georgia Baptists fill a table in the Norman Park dining hall. Many evacuees had no time to pack food or clothing due to rising flood waters.

Georgia Baptists in the marketplace also responded to the evacuee crisis. In the medical clinic at the Norman Park conference center, Jody Horne, director of the Colquitt County Health Department, tended to the needs of those trying to recapture their health as they began the task of rebuilding their lives.

"We've seen injuries typical of what these folks have been through," she said while taking a break outside the clinic. "We seen diarrhea, vomiting, and scratches, abrasions, and back problems typical of people who have been clinging to trees and rooftops for their lives," said the member of Norman Park First Baptist Church.

"We [in the health department] have never seen so many patients in such a short period of time, or witnessed such an outpouring of help from our communities and surrounding counties."

 

"48 hours without sleep"

Co-laborer Judy Murphy, health department office manager who attends church with Horne, agrees.

"We went 48 hours without sleep because we wanted to help. Love is about reaching out to people in their time of need. I am so grateful for what the Lord has done for me, for the way He has blessed my life; there is no way I could not help.

"These first few days with the evacuees have given me a totally new appreciation for what is important in life. My material possessions are just not that important anymore.

"You know, these men and woman and children were so traumatized when they stepped off of the buses that they didn't even know where they were. They would walk up to you and say 'Are we in Georgia?' I can't imagine what they have gone through to end up at Norman Park. I think it's best summed up by one of the bus drivers who told me he spent the entire eight-hour trip affirming the people and giving them hope.

"He said he told them, 'I'm taking you to paradise because you've already been to hell.'"