Lilburn church takes in 100 evacuees; First Moultrie at capacity with 110, Norman Park beds down 350
LILBURN – Savannah pastor Samuel Rodriguez never thought of himself as a latter-day Moses, moving his people to the Promised Land … but he reenacted much of the same role this week as he moved them from Savannah to higher ground.
As Hurricane Matthew pounded the Florida coastline and slowly inched its way toward Georgia – leaving chewed up beaches, lives, and homes in its path – Rodriquez decided to take up a fellow Hispanic pastor’s invitation of refuge in his church in suburban Atlanta. Good friend Rolando Ruiz and his congregation at Iglesia Bautista Hispanoamericana opened their doors and their hospitality to the Southeast Georgia pastor’s flock.
It didn’t take too long to think through the invitation, especially when Chatham and neighboring coastal counties were placed under a mandatory evacuation order.
Rodriguez shared the news and about half of his 200-member congregation took him up on the offer while others sought out relatives in Tennessee and the Carolinas.
“My family and relatives and some of our congregation – about 22 of us in 8 cars – left Savannah on Wednesday at 9 p.m. and arrived here at 1 a.m. on Thursday. It was not a bad drive, about 4.5 hours which is normal because we left before the crowds,” Rodriguez says.
Grueling 4.5 hour drive from Savannah turns into 10-hour ordeal
But others were not so fortunate. They were not able to leave until the following day as the mass evacuation was in full force, pulling into Lilburn at 3 a.m. after a grueling 10-hour drive.
“The first night everyone slept on pews in the sanctuary as we worked to improve housing conditions,” Ruiz says.
Those conditions now include all 11 Sunday School rooms above the fellowship hall, reserved for families for greater privacy, and more open sleeping arrangements on cots in the gymnasium.
Such evacuations are rare for the Savannah congregation, Rodriquez says. The last time was in 1999 during Hurricane Floyd when members of the church took refuge at First Hispanic Baptist Church in Warner Robins, near Macon.
And it’s not the first time Ruiz has opened the church for sleepovers, either. His congregation regularly hosts volunteers coming for Hispanic Vacation Bible School camps in the area.
“We are family and Scripture teaches us that when something bad happens to someone in the family, we are to be hospitable to them. It also teaches us to offer hospitality to the stranger in our midst, so we must be even more helpful to those in our family,” he says.
“Bro. Samuel demonstrated that to those in Savannah who are not even members of his church, just people in the community who had no place to go. He extended his hand to them to show that we must not be just hearers of the Word, but doers as well.”
Modeling Christ, showing love to strangers
That love for strangers resulted in four of those unchurched accepting Christ in a morning devotional at the Lilburn church. Now Rodriguez will bring them back to Savannah as new brothers and sisters to be mentored and discipled.
Ruiz and his congregation were grateful for cots that were loaned by the American Red Cross, and $500 donated by the Gwinnett Baptist Association to help with meal expenses. Executive Director of Missions Hugh Townsend said the Association was “delighted that we can partner with Iglesia Bautista Hispanoamericana. We exist to help our churches and this is a good example of helping to fulfill a crisis ministry need.”
As the word of the arrival of the evacuees got out, local media responded with coverage. Ruiz noted that WSBTV Channel 2 was quickly on the scene, followed by Hispanic television stations Telemundo, Univision, and Radio Vida Atlanta 96.5. That, in turn, brought food and other supplies from churches and others.
Rodriquez, pastor of Savannah’s Primera Iglesia Bautista Hispana – or First Hispanic Baptist Church – said he and his entourage hope to return home as soon as possible but will wait for word from Georgia disaster relief officials after they have inspected the area and given the “all clear.”
Media accounts are saying it could easily be mid-week or later before that word comes.
Even though Hurricane Matthew declined from a Category 4 storm to a Category 2 as it neared Savannah, wind and flood damage will still need to be addressed and power restored.
First Moultrie now at full capacity with 100 beds filled
Meanwhile in Moultrie, First Baptist Church was at full capacity at 110 beds through Friday night with occasional openings as guests who spent just the night left to continue to their final destinations.
Earlier that day the largest group to arrive were about 60 employees of the five-star Sea Island Resort on St. Simons Island who arrived on five company busses.
“That was quite a surprise,” noted Church Administrator Paula Neely. “We have everyone from chefs to wait staff to housekeepers, many of whom are Jamaicans. Everyone is being very patient and understanding.”
Neely said the group was accompanied by some management staff, as well, to coordinate the logistics of the relocation.
Pastor Wayne Woods thanked the Moultrie community for its outpouring of support and donations. Walmart, for example, delivered a load of towels for those needing showers provided by the Georgia Baptist Mission Board’s portable shower unit. The unit offers bathing opportunities for four men and four women in separate facilities.
“It will take a little patience for everyone to get a shower but everyone is understanding. Anytime you have a situation like this the keyword is flexibility,” Woods said with a chuckle.
Local churches are helping provide meals and the Red Cross, whose local leaders are members of the church, is also providing food and other assistance.
Since the occupancy has reached its 110 capacity, church youth will worship in the chapel on Sunday for their services. Their ministry area, known as The Gap, was pressed into service for overflow housing.
Norman Park doubles occupancy to 350, still some beds available
On Saturday afternoon over in Norman Park, the Georgia Baptist Conference Center reports occupancy has doubled from 175 to about 350. David Denis, guest services director, said a retirement home group plans to return to Jacksonville late Sunday and a Brunswick group hopes to depart Sunday afternoon for their 200-mile trek home.
“Every building but the dorm is filled to capacity and the dorm is half full,” the administrator said. “About the only reason someone would not stay is because they do not prefer a dorm setting.”
One couple mentioned they were unable to find any lodging in shelters or hotels from South Florida for more than 300 miles north. They happened to stumble onto the Norman Park website through information being distributed by the Georgia Welcome Center.
A few Georgia Baptist disaster relief volunteers are helping to staff the office and provide meals in the cafeteria.
“They are wonderful and have been a real blessing, let me tell you. Kudos to them all, they have gone above and beyond the call of duty,” he said.
Georgia Baptist disaster relief reactivates Buckets of Care campaign
The Georgia Baptist Mission Board has reactivated its popular Buckets of Care campaign for homeowner cleanup efforts.
In an online video at gabaptist.org, Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief Coordinator Stuart Lang announces the relief effort and directs viewers to gbcdisasterrelief.org. That site gives information on how to collect bucket contents and donate to the cause. Lang reminded donors that every dollar goes directly to help the cleanup effort “and to help homeowners help themselves in the aftermath of this storm.”
Updates and a photo of the bucket contents are also posted on the Georgia Baptist Mission Board Facebook page.