Cole Rankin, left, a member of First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, helps deliver donated furniture for a Burmese refugee. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
Cole Rankin, left, a member of First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City, helps deliver donated furniture for a Burmese refugee. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

Refugees reap blessing after Okla. twisters

Resettled Burmese, Sudanese, Iraqis and other nationalities received gifts of furniture from a Baptist ministry to furnish apartments damanged in flash flooding caused by the May tornadoes. 

By Jeff Brumley

It was 97 degrees in Oklahoma City Friday afternoon, and the 22-mph wind made it even hotter as Missourian Amy Heap and her misson team from CrossHaven Church spent hours unloading four box trucks containing furniture. But heat and heavy lifting didn't bother the folks from the Southern Baptist congregation in O’Fallon, Mo. They were in town volunteering with First Baptist, Oklahoma City’s, furniture ministry, and Friday was the pay off.

“It’s been hot but it’s lots of fun,” she said, especially because the first four days of the mission were spent working in warehouses where the donated furniture is stored. “Today is the first time we actually got to see customers.”

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It was a week of firsts for the Oklahoma City ministry. Since tornadoes and related flooding ravaged the region in May, the congregation’s once-struggling furniture bank has transformed into a multi-million dollar program benefitting storm victims in Oklahoma City, Moore, Norman and other nearby towns.

The first to get a shipment from the mushrooming missional enterprise were scores of mostly refugee families at Jaime’s Landing, a 136-unit apartment complex damaged by tornado-related flooding.

From 1 to 8 p.m. Friday, the Missouri team and other volunteers, directed by an official from partner Catholic Charities, distributed chairs, beds, tables, bureaus, TV stands, bookshelves and other pieces to eager refugees from Afghanistan, Burma, Iraq, the Sudan and the Congo, Turkmenistan and a number of Hispanic nations.

Most of them occupy the first-floor units that were saturated with waist-deep water and have since lived without furniture or with items borrowed from others. Thian Uk, a Baptist from Myanmar, said the community felt deep gratitude when the trucks arrived.

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For ministers and members at First Baptist, the feeling was of gratitude and accomplishment, because the delivery was a milestone for the pre-existing 2-year-old ministry.

“Today is the first time the bank has made a major contribution to refugees,” said Brian McAtee, minister for missional engagement at First Baptist.

The furniture bank was established around 2011 to assist Catholic Charities’ role settling refugees in Oklahoma City, but it never really took off and languished in small space and mostly used furniture.

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“Then the storm hit ... and God took care of all the resources,” McAtee said.

Over the following weeks the church received donations of cash, trucks and warehouse spaces. New furniture, clothing, shoes and school supplies started rolling in from around the country.

One furniture donation worth up to $2 million came from Thomasville Furniture. A variety of other, smaller donations have flooded in, too, including the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, which sent a shipment of cabinets originally intended for dorm rooms.

“The scale continues to grow every day,” said Tom Ogburn, pastor at First Baptist.

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Chia Zi, pastor of the Oklahoma City Chin Baptist Church, said the massive gesture served to deepen the gratitude refugees from Burma feel for First Baptist Church – where they also worship – Catholic Charities and other churches and nonprofits that have helped them resettle then recover from the tornadoes. She added that the four-truck delivery on Friday was a huge morale boost to the refugees.

First Baptist members involved for months receiving and storing furniture said they also felt thankful.

“I’m glad to see the furniture arriving on the grassroots level,” said Corey Miles. “It’s good to see the supply chain finally come to fruition.”