Church, community groups come together for hurricane refuge

Church, community groups come together for hurricane refuge
Southside Baptist Church opened its doors to displaced members of the community after Hurricane Irma.

For several weeks, the congregation of Southside Baptist had been hearing sermons by Pastor Gary Webber on “Love Well,” how Jesus’ followers should love everyone, always. And then Hurricane Irma arrived with the homework — 70 evacuees.

For two weeks, the white colonial church at Hendricks Avenue and Atlantic Boulevard did double duty as an American Red Cross shelter.

“We didn’t have much notice, about 24 hours,” said Cindy Graves, administrative assistant. “We have in the past indicated a willingness to be a shelter but never have because we are in the middle of a flood-prone area. But the church never lost power. We didn’t have phones or internet for about a week, but we had hot water for showers and electricity for charging devices.”

The church not only was home for Irma evacuees but also the scene of an enormous collaboration of church and community groups.

Volunteers with Christian Aid Ministries, a Mennonite disaster relief group, came from all over the country. During the day, they fanned out over the community cleaning up yards, ripping out soggy drywall and serve meals from their food truck, Graves said. At night, they slept on the third floor of the church.

Local churches rallied as well. South Jacksonville Presbyterian, San Jose Baptist,, which meets at Landon Middle School, The Point Church of Riverside, Jones Road Baptist, Fort Caroline Baptist and Chets Creek Church sent volunteers, food and supplies.

Billy Graham Ministry sent counselors. The Salvation Army sent food. World Relief provided grant money for displaced families. Jacksonville Baptist Association organized Buckets of Hope filled with cleaning supplies. Southside United Methodist provided rolls of quarters for people to use in laundromats. Kim’s Open Door organized activities for children.

Aetna sent a team to work with their customers and help evacuees navigate insurance claims process. They also used their pharmacy connections to help people replace their medications, Graves said.
“Our congregation really rose to the occasion with donations or volunteer hours,” said Scott Swanstrom, Southside Baptist outreach pastor. “We had to have people here 24/7 for two weeks. Our pool of volunteers has grown. Everyone is coming together.”

Swanstrom said they had learned from earlier disasters that a large percentage of the relief effort comes through churches because they are more knowledgeable about local needs than national groups.

“It was a learning curve,” he said. “We had 70 people and 70 unique situations. We provided a lot of social work.

“We are in the process of putting together policies and procedures for next time, so we’ll have protocols for volunteers and be able to get people connected to resources in a timely fashion.”
As part of the sermon series, Love Everyone Always yard signs were posted around the church.
“We distributed the signs to members and now our neighborhood is covered with Love Everyone Always signs. It is an amazing experience to have to put into action what we had listened to for a couple of weeks,” Graves said. “It is moving on so many levels.”

By Lilla Ross
Resident Community News

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