Sonja Carrasquillo, left, helps tornado survivors choose furniture at the 60,000-square-foot warehouse operated by First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
Sonja Carrasquillo, left, helps tornado survivors choose furniture at the 60,000-square-foot warehouse operated by First Baptist Church, Oklahoma City. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

Sharing faith through furniture

Grief experts say new furniture can provide the first feelings of normalcy after experiencing trauma.

This story was edited after posting.

By Jeff Brumley

Twenty-seven families in Moore, Okla., received a combined 325 pieces of furniture Saturday during a church-run furniture distribution for victims of the May tornadoes.

Moore resident John Wright described it as just another miracle since the storms. “It’s been great, it’s been a blessing,” said Wright, whose home is being repaired but remains uninhabitable.

The two dozen or so volunteers, mostly from First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City, testified it was they who were truly blessed in giving away the dressers, beds and other furniture and clothing.

“A lot of them come in crying and leave with a smile,” Ron Schuermann, a retired auto worker and a member of First Baptist, said of the storm victims who visited the 60,000-square-foot Moore warehouse operated by the congregation. “There are days when I’m awfully tired, but I always go. I wouldn’t miss out on this.”

Ministry continues growth

First Baptist Senior Pastor Tom Ogburn said God’s fingerprints are all over the local efforts to meet the physical and spiritual needs of the region’s twister and flooding victims, and the ongoing furniture ministry is one example.

The ministry began around 2011 as a small furniture bank established to aid refugees settled in Oklahoma City by Catholic Charities, and also for foster families and the working poor. Operating in 6,000 square feet of space provided by a church member, that ministry struggled until the tornadoes struck in May.

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At that point, long-standing relationships with other religious groups in the city kicked in, generating word-of-mouth and media coverage followed by donations of cash, trucks and furniture.

The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship’s Disaster Response agency brokered a deal to get donated furniture delivered from South Carolina, Ogburn said. CBF Oklahoma has directed visiting mission teams and other volunteers to the furniture ministry.

A “Loving Oklahoma” campaign that begins today will delegate volunteers to the furniture effort at the end of the week, Ogburn said.

A $1.3 million donation of new goods from Thomasville Furniture last month was followed by a financial gift from Feed the Children to pay for its transportation to Oklahoma City, where the charity is headquartered.

The organization also is paying the $12,000 monthly rent on the warehouse that opened for drive-up distribution on Saturday.

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Its inventory resembles commercial operations with some 8,000 pieces ranging from mirrors and game tables to tables and bed sets. The church and its partner ministries and charities hope to serve about 1,000 families from the facility for up to 18 more weeks.

“We went from a $6,000 to a $3 million ministry in a matter of weeks,” Ogburn said. “The scale continues to grow every day.”

And so does the astonishment of many who have come across the operation.

“I knew they had a warehouse, but this is overwhelming,” said Sonja Carrasquillo, a volunteer from St. John Missionary Baptist Church in Oklahoma City.

Most customers are also amazed to see the variety of free-but-new furniture and clothing available – and that there are few limits on how much can be taken, she said.

“One woman said ‘I have five kids and I need five bed frames,” Carrasquillo said. “I said we can give you five bed frames.”

‘Still in shock’

It’s difficult to overestimate the positive emotional impact that can have on people who have experienced major trauma, said Pam Wanzer, a member of First Baptist and one of the furniture ministry’s organizers.

“Most of these people are still in shock,” Wanzer said about those shopping in the warehouse Saturday.

Wanzer, who operates a grief counseling ministry with her husband and co-volunteer Mike, said many of the twisters’ victims are only now beginning to process and heal from the ordeal.

“Furniture starts to give them that routine and stability back,” she said.

That’s one of the reasons Feed the Children wanted to get on board with the effort, said Gary Sloan, who oversees disaster-relief projects as the charity’s senior vice president of domestic operations and program development.

Sloan said furniture is an often overlooked ministry focus in disaster-recovery efforts that usually focus more on debris cleaning, demolition, feeding and health care. “Furniture is an excellent item to provide to those who have lost everything,” he said.

And there was another reason the organization wanted to help.

“This disaster occurred literally in our backyard," he said. "This one is a little more personal.”

Being ‘God’s hands’

The unexpected nature of the ministry is one of the things that drew William Dooley, a surgeon and professor at the University of Oklahoma’s College of Medicine, to it.

“You experience what it is to be a Christian when you see the happiness in the eyes of those in dire straits and when you meet their needs in unexpected ways,” said Dooley, the chairman of deacons at First Baptist Church.

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“We’re supposed to be God’s hands in our community, and when we see that need we’re supposed to fill that need,” Dooley said.

Ogburn pointed to Dooley’s sweat-soaked, dirty T-shirt and shorts as the physician pushed and pulled huge boxes across the warehouse floor. “He’s a breast cancer surgeon and researcher and on Saturday mornings he’s [doing manual] labor,” Ogburn said.

It points to what effect the opportunities to serve tornado victims has had on his church and community this year, the pastor added.

“This is clearly not church-as-usual,” he said. “But this is how I always dreamed church would be.”

Related story: Baptists put backs into 'Loving Oklahoma.'