COLQUITT — Most people attend a church for worship and inspiration. But the Tuesday and Wednesday before Hurricane Michael tore its way through southwest Georgia, First Baptist was considered a place of refuge in a time of turmoil.
A full 24 hours before the majority of the area fully estimated the arrival of the major storm, First Baptist opened its sanctuary to 150 individuals. It was a modern-day Ark, sheltering residents from a storm none had lived through and few could image its power.
When First Colquitt built its sanctuary about 8 years ago, it took extra steps to assure that it would be certified to withstand 120 mph winds – exactly the kind that Michael brought ashore, eventually resulting in an estimated $300-million of damage. And that designation would set it apart from all other buildings as the only structure to withstand that kind of environmental wrath.
“We invited the community to seek safety in our sanctuary on both Tuesday, when the tropical winds first began to be felt, and on Wednesday when the storm actually hit. We opened the doors early on Thursday morning and let them walk out into a mess,” explains Pastor Chad Cooper.
“They were anxious to go home and see what remained.”
Since then the church, just a few blocks from Courthouse Square, has become an even stronger magnet for ministry to the city and county. A sign announces free hot showers from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. That’s a luxury in a world where electricity and water supply no longer exist.
The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) chose the church as its headquarters, partnering with the congregation to provide feeding and housing for first responders. The gymnasium/Family Life Center became dining hall and sleeping quarters for Air Force, National Guard, and other first responders who rotate in and out of the facility.
“We serve about 750 meals a day to anyone who needs assistance, as well as provide about 75 cots for first responders to make it easier for them to get a good night’s rest,” Cooper explains.
As he walks through the facility volunteers brings in armfuls of canned goods donated from churches and individuals statewide. About 25 volunteers from Lakeview Baptist Church in Lenox prepare and serve the meals. John Warner is pastor of the church located outside of Valdosta.
“Early on we received a considerable amount of food from people who lost electricity and brought anything they had from their freezers,” he explains.
That meant more than spaghetti and meat balls. Those donated items included venison, catfish, red snapper – including just about any wild game that once roamed Georgia’s backwoods. Meals have now returned to more usual comfort food such as pasta, hot dogs, hamburgers, beef stew and rice.
The Bistro, the youth gathering spot, has been transformed into a storehouse for all the food items which are pouring in from across the state. Hardly an inch remains in the formerly spacious room that is now stacked with a variety of items than from trucks and automobiles directly on their way to the kitchen.
FEMA has brought in 16 portable shower units … 8 for men and 8 for women … that has been a blessing to local residents as well as those first responders.
And Thursday afternoon, the church was in negotiations to house the New Life Learning Day Care Center, the largest non-profit in the community whose facility was lost in the storm.
“I can’t say enough about the spirit of our people from First Baptist who are volunteering their time and resources to this ministry,” Cooper said. “It is a massive project that requires flexibility and our people are showing their love of being the hands and feet of Christ.”
The church has sustained roof damage to every building, but its focus remains on meeting the needs of others. Its steeple lays in a vacant lot across the street from the sanctuary. When it was pulled from its mooring, it hit the roof … causing additional damage.
Dennis Jones, FEMA director for Chatham County which includes Savannah, estimated that 95% of Miller County residents have been affected by Michael, all to one degree or another. Many will still be dealing with the impact for at least a month or longer.
Debbie Henry, FEMA director for Miller County, thanked the church for its assistance with recovery from the third most powerful recorded hurricane in the nation’s history.
“If it had not been for First Baptist and their loving people, we would not have made it through this disaster. Anything they are asked to do, they reply with a ‘yes,’” Henry explains.
“They say ‘We must do this to help our community.’ This church has been awesome.”