Members of South Main Baptist Church in Pasadena, Texas, prepare a foundation for sheds being built for tornado victims in Shawnee, Okla. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
Members of South Main Baptist Church in Pasadena, Texas, prepare a foundation for sheds being built for tornado victims in Shawnee, Okla. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

Baptists put backs into 'Loving Oklahoma'

Organizers and participants say the weeklong tornado recovery campaign enables them to be the hands and feet of Christ.

By Jeff Brumley

This week’s “Loving Oklahoma” campaign comes at just the right moment for disaster-response coordinators who are launching a new phase in the recovery from May’s deadly tornadoes.

“We are in the process of switching from cleanup to build-up,” Jill Hatcher, Oklahoma CBF disaster response coordinator, told volunteers Monday morning at First Baptist Church, Norman. “I know the Lord orchestrated you being here.”

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Hatcher also told the “Loving Oklahoma” participants to be prepared to see unbelievable devastation, and to expect emotional highs and lows.

“I have worked in Third World countries and it’s overwhelming when you see those conditions in your own backyard,” she added during the orientation session at the church.

‘Bring a GPS’

The Oklahoma program, which runs through Friday, comes on the heels of a similar effort waged in June in West, Texas, a small city near Waco that was partially flattened in a fertilizer factory explosion in April.

Like the “Loving West” campaign, the Oklahoma version features visiting mission teams from churches around the country and region –  though mostly from Texas. And also like West, it is organized by Texas Baptist Disaster Recovery, but this time joined by Cooperative Baptist Fellowship Disaster Response Ministries and World Vision.

In West, cleanup was measured in city blocks, while the Oklahoma work zone measures roughly 200 square miles, said Gerald Davis, disaster recovery and response specialist with the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

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“The jobs are widespread and mostly rural, so we highly recommend GPS,” Davis said.

As of Tuesday, 27 churches and more than 245 volunteers were registered for the week. Close to 20 jobs had been completed by the end of Tuesday.

“Some (jobs) will be ongoing throughout the week,” Marla Bearden, disaster response specialist with BGCT, said by e-mail. “We don’t have a total (of jobs planned) for the week, but there will be many.”

Davis said it’s likely 300 volunteers will participate. Organizers said visiting church teams have been coming in steadily for the 12 weeks leading up to “Loving Oklahoma.”

“We saw at least 6,000 volunteers come through in the first six weeks after the tornadoes,” said Jeff Cockroft, a member of Emmanuel Baptist Church and director of the McLoud congregation’s disaster-response efforts.

The May 19 tornado cut a 12-mile swath of destruction and Emmanuel Baptist is located at the halfway mark, he said. “The church is in it for the long-haul,” he said. “We have a food pantry that has already served 1,400.”

This week, the church joins First Baptist, Norman, as one of two hubs where “Loving Oklahoma” teams receive their orientation and assignments. Cockroft said Emmanuel Baptist has seen most every denomination come through, including Baptists, Catholics, Mennonites, Methodists and Presbyterians.

‘A Christian thing’

First Baptist Church in Norman has been housing visiting recovery teams since just days after the twisters hit, said Clint Taylor, minister of education and outreach, who oversees disaster-relief efforts and the family life center where volunteers are staying.

He said visitors have streamed in from almost every state and denomination imaginable, but those distinctions don’t carry a lot of weight. “I don’t think it’s a denominational thing that we’re doing," Taylor said. "It’s a Christian thing we’re doing.”

Taylor said housing the volunteers provided one more way for people to serve. “We have senior adults who can’t go out and do hard labor, but they are cooking meals,” he said.

Those doing heavy lifting said the effort is worth it – even after being warned about 100-plus temperatures, rattlesnakes, ticks and venomous spiders.

Among them were South Main Baptist Church of Pasadena, Texas, and Philippine Trinity Baptist Church from Houston, both of which worked on a variety of tasks Monday at Steelman Estates. The Shawnee mobile home park suffered two deaths and the destruction of all but seven of its roughly 90 homes. The partnership that organized this week’s event is now in the process of building actual homes for the residents, Hatcher said.

“Hope is being built out there,” Hatcher said.

‘Being the presence of Christ’

LovingOK 126The South Main group of about a dozen spent the morning and early afternoon Monday performing prep work for the pouring of two foundations at Steelman. In the afternoon, they and the four-man Philippine Baptist group helped with some roofing and construction of storage sheds for residents.

“We don’t know them at all, but we love them,” South Main member Marie Reed said of Steelman’s residents. “We all have lovely homes and we want them to have a place that won’t blow over the next time the wind blows.”

Philippine Trinity Baptist member Justin Genitiano, 18, said he had been itching to get to Oklahoma since he first read about the tornados in May. Seeing it mentioned on Facebook and Twitter strengthened that desire.

“It’s a natural disaster and people need all the help they can get,” he said. “Plus, it’s kind of a church outreach and a way to get the word out about the faith.”

Earlier that day, Pastor Wade Smith at First Baptist, Norman, told volunteers their presence was spiritually significant for both the congregation and the state. “Thank you for helping us be the presence of Christ to our neighbors,” Smith said.

Related stories: an Oklahoma City church provides furniture for refugees affected by tornadoes, while operating a massive warehouse to furnish the homes of twister victims across the region.