About 35 homeless men found a warm place to sleep Wednesday night at the East Sunshine Church of Christ's emergency weather shelter for men.
Marsha Burns, a member of the men's shelter ministry team, said she expects that number to increase as the cold temperatures continue through the weekend.
The Salvation Army normally opens its emergency shelter when the National Weather Service predicts the wind chill will reach 14 degrees or below. However, the Salvation Army gymnasium that houses the shelter is being set up for the Christmas toy drive, said Jeff Smith, social services director.
The East Sunshine Church of Christ, which operates its emergency shelter when the temperature is predicted to be below 32 degrees, has agreed to open in place of the Salvation Army over the next few weeks.
Jeff Smith said he expects the Salvation Army gymnasium to be cleared out and ready to serve as an emergency weather shelter again around Dec. 26.
"When you've got toys and food coming in for a thousand families, you've got to have a place to store it," Smith said, adding that families can sign up for the holiday assistance program through Friday.
The East Sunshine Church of Christ is permitted by the city to open its emergency shelter when temperatures dip below 32 degrees between 10 p.m. and 4 a.m., and when the Salvation Army's shelter is not open.
Pick up is at Victory Square, 1610 N. Broadway, around 8 p.m.
Burns said men can also walk to or be dropped off at the church located at 3721 E. Sunshine St. Capacity is 75.
Deron Smith, pastor at East Sunshine Church of Christ, said men don't have to have identification or go through any kind of background check.
"Coming in sober is a requirement just because that does impact the group as a whole. It impacts the kind of peacefulness of the night," Deron Smith explained. "There have been times when people have not been sober when we pick them up. If they cause trouble, they will be dismissed. Sometimes they come in and go right to sleep and we don’t even know it."
Words from the hymn “God’s Family” proved especially poignant on a recent Sunday, as two Churches of Christ — one of which lost its building in the Nov. 28 wildfire that ravaged the popular resort town of Gatlinburg, Tenn. — came together to worship God. The song’s special meaning was evident on this Lord’s Day as more than 200 men, women and children assembled at the Sevierville Church of Christ — including two-dozen guests from the displaced Gatlinburg Church of Christ.
“I've sang that song in many situations, but I experienced that song … in a way I never have before,” said Gatlinburg member David Barton, holding back tears. "While our number is small, God's family is not small. And they have reached out to us … in ways that you can't even begin to describe or appreciate."
Just a few days earlier, residents of Gatlinburg — 14 miles south of Sevierville —awoke to a cloud of smoke and haze. Rain was overdue, and wildfires had reached the nearby Chimney Tops Mountain in neighboring Smoky Mountain National Park. Before the day finished, the fire would spread to the city, claiming more than a dozen lives and destroying hundreds of structures, including houses of worship. Rain would come in from the west, but not before the damage was done.
On this cold, damp Sunday morning, members and visitors trickled in to worship at the Sevierville Church of Christ. If not for the fire, a similar picture would have unfolded at the Gatlinburg Church of Christ, a vibrant congregation with only 35 local members but an active outreach to visiting tourists. Minister Rod Rutherford preaches for the Gatlinburg congregation, which reaches the community with a radio and television ministry and often tops attendance of 150 during peak tourism season.
The Sevierville and Gatlinburg churches have long shared a close fellowship, Sevierville minister John Daniels said.
Daniels and the Sevierville congregation made the decision to open their building to the brothers and sisters affected by wildfires, not only for worship but as a temporary storage site for relief supplies. The Sevierville church even canceled a monthly potluck meal due to its fellowship hall filling up with boxes of food and other emergency provisions supplied by Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort.
Rutherford, the Gatlinburg minister, walked around the Sevierville church foyer passing out bulletins still featuring a cover picture of a beautifully
Save for an emotional tension lingering just beyond the smiles and hugs, it seemed hard to realize that days earlier, the fire had destroyed the church’s 42-year-old building and the homes of several members.
Standing strong amid the trials, Gatlinburg members still showed up to worship their Lord.
“The church is the people. That's New Testament Scripture right there, " said Gatlinburg member Randy Vernon, who teaches a Bible class. “The building is just a convenience for us, and we'll get our convenience back here in a few months.”
In a congregational meeting following the service, Gatlinburg church secretary Barton described an outpouring of relief from the church family in Sevierville and around the world.
The church had received calls and prayer from as far away as Oregon, Scotland and Puerto Rico, Barton said. Initial monetary contributions numbered close to $60,000 with final numbers expected to be much higher, he said — enough money for a 12-month lease on the building where the congregation planned to meet the next Sunday; enough money, coupled with insurance, to begin construction on a new building; and enough money to provide for members in need.
"It's been overwhelming, the support that we've had," said Lisa Tant Campbell, a Gatlinburg member who lost all her earthly possessions in the fire. "We're very grateful for it and thankful. To God be the glory."
With gift cards, checks and emergency supplies streaming in, Campbell, her family and other victims counted their blessings in the midst of grief and could not help but acknowledge the hand of God.
Judy Sortore, with granddaughter Annabelle, stand in the fellowship hall where supplies
are being stored. "This is wonderful," said Judy Sortore, holding her granddaughter Annabelle as
she walked through a fellowship hall inundated with food, toiletries and miscellaneous supplies.
Sortore and her husband, Richard, lost their house and two connecting apartments where their son, daughter and their families had been living. Despite the loss, the Sortores still found themselves worshiping and thanking God for his provision.
“God has provided everything we needed,” Richard Sortore said. “It's been a little difficult, but we all got out with our lives. All of our needs are met.”
As the lights went out in the Sevierville church building following the service, congregants returned to their homes and temporary places of shelter. A sense of peace prevailed as words of “God’s Family” kept echoing in the minds — and hearts — of those touched, but not overcome, by tragedy.
“And sometimes we laugh together, sometimes we cry. Sometimes we share together, heartaches and sighs. Sometimes we dream together of how it will be, when we all get to heaven, God's family.”
As he walked off his plane after landing at an Alabama airport, Hames, a member of the Flint Church of Christ in Decatur, was greeted by signs and cheers as his wife, children and grandchildren rushed toward him.
'We were holding our breath that we were going to get back.'
“We stood there and hugged and cried for about 15 minutes. It was very emotional,” Hames told The Christian Chronicle. He had left his truck at the airport and said he thought he’d simply drive himself home. His family thought differently.
Just days earlier, they had sat waiting, praying for the phone to ring. They didn’t yet know if he had survived Hurricane Matthew.
They were there conducting a preaching seminar. Hearing the storm was headed right toward them, they canceled classes and encouraged the men to get to safety.
The four Americans, along with six Haitian preachers, decided to ride out the storm in their motel room.
“It was just a huge roar, and the wind was going sideways,” Hames said. “We got down to pray because we weren’t sure we were going to survive it.”
When the storm passed, the damage was beyond what they could have imagined.
“When we walked out and saw the destruction, the trees and the power lines down, the roofs of homes gone, gates blown over, it was sobering to see all of that destruction,” said Chris Pressnell, minister for the Flint Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala.
“Every building, every tree was destroyed except the building we were staying in,” Hames said.Satellite photos show Jérémie before and after Hurricane Matthew.Jérémie, a city of just over 30,000 people, was one of the hardest-hit areas. Trees fell like dominoes. Roads became impassable. The winds ripped the roof from the Catholic church. Haitian officials estimate more than 1,000 people perished in the storm.
Back in Alabama — and across the U.S. — Christians prayed that the men would be found alive.
Hames said they believed they would eventually make it home to Alabama, but their hearts ached for those around them.
The men pooled their money to buy large bags of rice and beans and shared them with the Haitian ministers, asking them to distribute the food to those in need.
Cut off from all cell phone service and electricity, they found a man with a satellite phone who sent word home they were alive.
They knew they had to get to Port-au-Prince, but the 180-mile trip would not be easy. Many of the bridges and roads were destroyed.
They loaded into a passenger van with a driver, an interpreter, an elder from a nearby church and a Haitian preacher who had traveled with them from Port-au-Prince.
The first bridge they came to was gone, but locals had created a makeshift replacement from logs and boulders. They made it safely across.
When they came to another downed bridge, their driver traveled along the bank until he came to an area that seemed shallow enough to pass through. He built up momentum and rushed through the water, making it to the other side.
The vehicle slipped and slid through areas devastated by ocean waves, rain and mudslides. Twice, crowds of Haitians stopped them and demanded money.
“We were holding our breath that we were going to get back,” Pressnell said.
As they neared the top of a mountain, their phones began to ding — the first sign of cellular service. They stopped just long enough for each man to finally, briefly call home.
“That was emotional, just to get to hear their voices,” Pressnell said of his family.
After more than eight hours, the men arrived in Port-au-Prince.
'Every building, every tree was destroyed except the building we were staying in.'
Despite the hurricane — one of many disasters endured by Haiti, including the devastating 2010 earthquake — Hames said he knows God is working there.
“We came away not disappointed that we couldn’t finish the lectureship,” he said, “but glad we could share God’s love with them through the storm.”
Now, back home, Hames and the others work to coordinate shipments of food, medical supplies and personal items to help those in Haiti. Hames said 100 percent of the funds donated will be used to help those affected by the hurricane.
Hames plans to return to Haiti by the end of October to help rebuild the church in Jérémie.
Donations to help with the work in Haiti can be sent to the Flint Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala. Hames says 100-percent of the money raised will go directly to Haiti relief efforts.
It was then they realized their own home was in danger. Unable to reach the church building they rushed home, loading what they could into their car and leaving.
“My neighbors had lived there for years and said they’d never seen water in that subdivision,” Abbott said.
But this was different. This time his home and those around it flooded. The water line on the outside brick showed that the water came up 33-inches high. Everything they had left behind was ruined.
Forced to focus on their own homes, the Abbotts and members of the Denham Springs church put a note on Facebook, asking for help to clean up their building. They were grateful when members of churches from nearby communities volunteered to help out — tearing out drywall and carpet.
Fowler is the minister for the Goodwood Church of Christ in Baton Rouge, La. The congregation of about 200 sits just about three blocks away from where three officers were killed and three others were injured Sunday in what police are calling an ambush.
“No one (at Goodwood) was immediately impacted by loss of life, but many are affected by the loss of security in their community,” Fowler said.
The shooting happened while many were in Bible class Sunday morning. Alerts began to ring on phones throughout the building, leading Fowler and church leaders to make an announcement letting the congregation know what had unfolded just blocks away.
As officers searched a neighborhood adjacent to the church, Fowler says the security of the members was a top concern. The building was locked down, with someone posted at each entrance, allowing members and visitors to still enter while protecting themselves from any possible danger.
Not far away, at the South Baton Rouge Church of Christ, church leaders let members know they were monitoring the situation closely. Minister Mark Hadley says the congregation is a little over a mile from where the shooting happened, but many of the members travel through the area to get to church.
While details of what happened are still being investigated, Fowler says the community was already hurting and churches were already working to bring healing since the death of Alton Sterling earlier this month.
“I think the difficulty we face is when you speak to one tragedy, I don’t want to isolate anyone that has an equal sense of injustice,” Fowler said.
Fowler says the churches in the area are working together to bridge divides, especially those which may exist due to race.
While he says those efforts have been going on for more than a year, the recent Sterling case shows them the efforts to unify churches, brothers and sisters, in the area needs to be a priority.
“If we are going to stand, we need to stand united as an entire body,” Fowler said.
At South Baton Rouge church leaders have challenged members to not only pray but to be people of action, to get involved in their neighborhoods, their schools, their community.
The hurt from recent events has reached deep into every part of the Baton Rouge community. Fowler's hope is that Christians will be able to figure out how they can move forward together, overcoming any divide and uniting not just as a community but as the body of Christ.
Across the Dallas-Fort Worth area Sunday, in church meetings and street protests, blacks and Latinos called for tough conversations on race and policing -- conversations many feared were being eclipsed by the outpouring of concern over an ambush on officers in downtown Dallas on Thursday.
A peaceful gathering to protest the latest deaths of two black men at the hands of police officers in Baton Rouge and the St. Paul area ended in more violence Thursday night. A sniper attack in left five police officers dead, seven wounded and a nation stunned and seething by the bloodshed.
“There is a repentance that has to happen in this nation,” said Carl Sherman, a pastor and former Desoto mayor to a large crowd gathered under the vaulted Southern Hills Church of Christ.
More than a dozen law enforcement officers filled the middle pews to hear their public service praised -- and then criticized.
Blaise Mikulewicz, Dallas County Sheriff Assistant Chief Deputy, took the stage, speaking simply. “You must trust me,” he said. It’s time for all parties to cease seeing skin color, he said. “Those barriers have to come down.” When he was finished, he received a standing ovation.
About 600 persons filled the church for a vigil and meeting organized by the Dallas Area Interfaith, a network of churches and organizations that push for social justice causes. Another meeting is planned at Cedar Crest Church of Christ in south Dallas on July 21.
“Building trust is how we are going to get better policing,” said Josephine Lopez Paul, the lead organizer for Dallas Area Interfaith.
'I'm still seeking God for what to say, but he has convicted me that something must be said,' one minister proclaims.
“It will be different. Not sure what yet. My father-in-law is a police officer, and my three nephews are black. This week has hit me hard. I'm still seeking God for what to say, but he has convicted me that something must be said.” — Jeff Dunn, East Side Church of Christ, Snyder, Texas
Antwan D. Brown “This has hit me in more ways than one. I am a black American law enforcement officer, and if I remain silent about these tragedies, I do all of us an injustice. My series this month is, ‘The Healings of the Fruit of the Spirit,’ which I suppose is timely (I credit God). So I will take this time to really speak on love and how it is hard for a people to know joy and peace when they are not shown love or it is not demonstrated towards them.” — Antwan D. Brown, Barton Avenue Church of Christ, Luling, La.
“We are in Acts 4, ‘Bold Faith.’ I was going to speak more about the general ideas of that, but after this week, I am moving to talk about recognizing the marginalized and bringing them into the presence of God. … I will also be encouraging our church to begin a campaign to honor and commend the officers and public servants that have gone above and beyond the call of duty.” — Andrew Hill, Mountain Avenue Church of Christ, Tucson, Ariz.
Roger Woods“I am speaking on how faith in Christ gives us courage (planned a month ago). I was already using an MLK quote about fear knocks, faith answered ... so I will address the situation by talking about how our faith must be strong so that we are not held captive by fear.” — Roger Woods, Walled Lake Church of Christ, Michigan
“I have scrapped the planned sermon. We will talk about the lament Psalms — and yes, we will have a dialogue. I will ask how people are doing emotionally, spiritually. So it will not be a normal sermon. I understand that Southside may be unique and not everyone is welcome to have such an informal time of teaching. I agree — we do not always need a sermon.” — Randy Clay, Southside Church of Christ, Salt Lake City
“God willing, I start with a prayer for grace and mercy, as I call forward two of our African-American shepherds and also call forward two of our police officers (one white and one African-American).” — Dan Cooper
“We really need plastic totes.”
Out of the all the things Joseph Pauley could name that would help West Virginia’s flooded communities, he chose plastic totes.
“When people find things that they can salvage, they need something to put them in,” the Belle Church of Christ minister said, “the problem is…we’re trying to buy them and we can’t find them.”
Pauley is coordinating the distribution of relief effort supplies at the Elkview Church of Christ in Elkview, W.Va. When he began spreading the word that they needed totes, the Belington Church of Christ bought as many as they could find — 99 — and sent them to Elkview, nearly three hours away.
“And they’re all gone,” Pauley said of the 99 totes, “we gave the last one out (Wednesday).”
Relief efforts are pouring into West Virginia as the state, its people and its churches recover from flash floods that took 23 lives, including two children, last weekend.
Pauley said that Elkview and other churches across the state are offering not only supplies, but also emotional encouragement to flood victims.
“We’ve hugged and cried with people,” Pauley said, “We’ve had people come in and we ask them what do you need and they say ‘I don’t know.’
“We had a man come in (Wednesday). He was just so overwhelmed. His wife died two weeks ago, and (the flood) wasn’t a total loss for him, he has some people helping him, but he’s just so overwhelmed on what to do going forward that he — probably a 60-year-old man — just stood there and wept.”
The flooding from Elk River crested at 33 feet on Friday and left the central West Virginia towns of Rainelle, Richwood and Clendenin devastated.
Matthew Benefield is a minister at the North Beckley Church of Christ, 50 miles away from Rainelle. The church partnered with Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Inc. to deliver supplies to the Rainelle area.
“Rainelle and Rupert, they both got smashed,” Benefield said. “Most of the water is gone but some of the roads are gone.”
The church is driving supplies out to those who lost vehicles during the flooding and one of the volunteering men received a kiss of gratitude in return, Benefield added.
“It’s hard seeing all the hurt, but it’s nice seeing a truckload arriving every five minutes trying to help these people.”
The top item of need in Rainelle: bleach.
“They’re all wanting to clean out their houses and kill all the mold – that’s the problem,” Benefield said of citizens in the flood’s aftermath.
The 40-soul congregation offers supplies from the church building and is taking also necessities out to those who lost their cars.
Ketchum said the community as a whole is also focusing on neighbors helping neighbors.
“One guy came in and said, “All I need is water, save the rest of the stuff for people who really need it,’” the former church elder recalled. “So people aren’t being greedy and taking stuff they don’t need, and that’s one of the best ways you can help your neighbor.”
In the southeast part of the state, Disaster Assistance CoC is also sending volunteers and trucks brimming with supplies to the stricken counties. Mike Baumgartner, the president and CEO of the outreach mission, is leading a team to White Sulphur Springs on July 2.
“You see so many things that make you want to cry,” Pauley said, “but you see so many things that make you feel good about being a Christian. There is humanity left in the world.”
“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together; and a little child shall lead them.”
— Isaiah 11:6, English Standard Version
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — If you are a member of the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ, then chances are you’ve heard the name Rivers Clark.
Rivers is a 4-year-old girl full of energy and love for Jesus. For most of her life, she has come to church with her grandparents, Bob and Jacquie Barringer.
A little more than a year ago, she began asking her father, Ron Clark, if he would read her a Bible story before bedtime every night. Even though he himself wasn’t going to church, he agreed. Night after night of reading Bible stories to her, he began to think about his life — about things like peace, joy, happiness and of course, purpose.
After a few weeks, Rivers asked her “da-da” if he would come to church with her. He didn’t really want to, but he loves his daughter.
So he did.
He took Rivers to Bible class and then sat in the back of the auditorium, doing his best to avoid any conversations. Truth is, he felt guilty for even being in church. He thought that, in order to attend a church, you have to have your life in order. You couldn’t have a past. You had to have all of the answers. He knew that he didn’t.
But week after week, he started to notice that others there also struggled with temptations. They didn’t have it all together or have all the answers. They, too, had a past, just like him.
Slowly he started to talk with people, build relationships, attend classes and study the Scriptures with one of the ministers. One Wednesday night in the 4-year-old-class, Rivers asked the teacher the most beautiful question anyone has ever heard, “Are you going to baptize my da-da?”
A year after Ron started coming to church with his daughter, he made the decision to put Christ on in baptism for the forgiveness of his sins. He realized that his life was in need of a Savior. He found the purpose he’d always been searching for.
Just like Ron, we all have a story. We all have a past, things we aren’t proud of. Thank you, Jesus Christ, for going to the cross! Because of you, we have life. Because of you, we have hope.
Congratulations, Ron — and thank you, Rivers, for your example and influence.
STUART CASH is involvement minister for the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock, Ark.