When Hurricane Matthew unleashed its furious floodwaters on St. Augustine in October 2016, members of Anastasia Baptist Church took it personally.
After all, St. Augustine is their home. And Hurricane Matthew, the uninvited guest, left behind a swath of heartbreak and devastation in not only their lives but also the lives of their family members, neighbors and friends.
The hurricane roared into St. Augustine on a Friday; evacuation orders were lifted the next evening, and on Sunday morning, Anastasia Baptist Church, held three worship services –only to be followed by church members immediately mobilizing into the community to offer hope and help to those affected by the storm.
Even as some church members were reeling from the hurricane’s wrath, they turned their focus to their neighbors.
“How can we deliver the message that Jesus cares for the community and wants them to receive His love and eternal life, if we were to ‘check out’ when it gets hard to love? How can we say that we are strong in Christ, and then when our community and our church need His strength the most, we focus on our own hurts?” asked Pastor Walter West. The church meets in three locations in the country’s oldest city.
“If a church wants to be significant and relevant, we have to be there when it hurts,” he said.
A church can “be at its best” as it responds to a crisis in its own community, agreed Delton Beall, who directs Florida Baptists’ disaster relief efforts.
“As a church serves it community, it shows [community residents] what it means to be a Christian,” he said, describing a church that ministers in the midst of a disaster as a “church in work clothes.”
Anastasia Church’s disaster relief team led by Neill Robins, along with the church’s missions and evangelism pastor, Mason Reigger, set up a command center, coordinating the church’s disaster relief efforts with Florida Baptist disaster relief and local emergency center operations.
Relief efforts included demolition work, provision of food and housing, yardwork, miscellaneous repairs and more – always with a desire to share God’s hope and love with those being helped.
In total, the church responded to needs in 132 homes in its community; 65 were families with some tie to the church, and 67 were families with no tie to the church.
The home of one church member –an elderly woman who had just lost her husband about four months before the hurricane – sustained considerable flood damage from the October storm. The widow’s son wrote a personal note to the church, expressing his gratitude for the response to his mother: “Deacons and other volunteers arrived the day the floods subsided and stayed until they’d rebuilt the entire first floor of the house. Their steadfast love, their hard work and their ministry of presence helped mom stay strong and soldier through this most difficult time.”
Among its multifaceted approach to disaster relief, Anastasia Baptist Church members delivered barbeque meals to all St. Johns County schools that were being used as emergency shelters. One principal thanked church members for the hot meals: “These times are trying for all of us, but we’re sure with God’s help, we will all get through this together. Thank you for brightening the day for all of us.”
Still, four months after the storm’s initial impact on the community, some are still recovering; many will be out of their homes for many more months to come.
“There is a challenge to stay on top and continue to pray and help those who are still dealing with it every day,” said West. The day-in and day-out long-term task of disaster relief is one that he and his church members are committed to as they shine Christ’s Light brightly amid the darkness of the hurricane’s impact.
By Margaret Colson for the Florida Baptist Convention, March 14, 2017.