Which churches will be best prepared to save bodies and souls when the next big disaster-hurricane, earthquake, terrorist attack, whatever-hits?
Looking at what happened this month after a tornado killed 20 people in central Florida, the answer is clear: churches that already do community-based ministry.
First the news, because a 20-death disaster doesn't get much attention anymore: At least three tornadoes, with winds possibly as high as 165 mph, hit an area 50 miles north of Orlando on Feb. 2 between 3 and 4 a.m., when few people were awake to hear tornado warnings on radio and television.
By noon 13 teams from various Baptist churches and from the Christian Contractors Association had arrived at the First Baptist Church of Leesburg, which is known for its emphasis on helping the poor and needy through "ministry-based evangelism" ("Doing well, doing good," Aug. 20, 2005). By nightfall the next day some 130 volunteers had already completed 38 jobs, which one worker defined as "cutting limbs and sharing Christ."
First Baptist fed the volunteers from other cities. Formerly homeless men and women who live in church residences adjacent to the sanctuary also helped out. The volunteers each day came back from the field with tidings of comfort and grace:
0 One team drove down a dirt road and saw a distraught woman bolting out of a damaged house. Four Shetland ponies along with chickens, cats, and dogs were running loose. Fifteen minutes later 30 volunteers were rounding up the animals, tarping the roof, and cleaning up. When the woman asked what brought the volunteers together, a pastor sat down with her and talked about Christ.
0 Otto and his wife (I'll use only first names to protect privacy) lost a car, so a church secretary called a salesman at a local dealership. He talked a woman buying a new car into donating her old one.
0 Lou sat in a chair in front of what used to be her mobile home. She had a dislocated left shoulder but was grateful to be alive: Her husband Larry had dug her out of the rubble. The frame of their mobile home had landed on their van and crushed it. One person loaned them a pickup truck and a second offered a travel trailer for temporary lodging. Another person found what she thought were Larry's dentures, but they turned out to be someone else's, and a dental clinic provided new ones for free.
0 A tree that fell on Lillian's mobile home saved her life by working as an anchor, holding her home in place while the tornado shredded other mobiles and left the pieces (and sometimes people) pinned against trees. A church member with an extra bedroom took her in.
0 Twenty volunteers spent eight hours cleaning up five acres owned by a family that included an elderly man with congestive heart failure and his crippled wife. Their 35-year-old son asked how much the cleanup would cost them. A pastor responded, "Fact is, it cost a whole bunch-but it was paid 2,000 years ago."
The Baptists of Leesburg did not work alone. They partnered with Volunteer Florida, Neighbors to the Rescue, and the Red Cross. Many other religious groups pitched in. The Orlando Sentinel reported the good work of Presbyterians, Catholics, and Methodists, and especially lauded the efforts of five members of the Islamic Society of Central Florida.
Tornado stories are not happy stories. Among the dead was retired school bus driver Jamie Wright, 55, who had left south Florida a year ago to escape hurricanes. Other victims ranged from a 92-year-old man to 17-year-old Brittany May, killed by a falling tree that crushed her bedroom.
Insurers estimated $68 million in damage. One tornado destroyed a church built to withstand a Category 4 hurricane. The wind picked up one tractor-trailer rig and slammed it down on top of another one.
But with overwhelming damage came overwhelming grace. One of those helped said, "I have never felt and experienced love like this from total strangers who work for people they have never known."
Twenty people died. Changed lives can't make up for those deaths, but it's worth noting that 20 others known to the Leesburg Baptists, and more in other cities, made professions of faith in Christ.