Alabama Baptist churches minister to those affected by unexpected winter stormcomment (1)
February 6, 2014
By Neisha Fuson
Restrooms and free coffee. For some, those words posted on a sign outside Green Valley Baptist Church, Hoover, were the first glimmer of hope.
Typically the forecast of snow in Alabama brings happiness and hope for a flurry or two but Jan. 28 brought much more than what meteorologists, or any Alabamian, bargained for.
Anywhere from one to four inches of snow fell between the hours of 9 a.m. and 3 p.m. throughout the state — surprising central Alabama. Many areas like Birmingham were only expecting a “dusting of snow and no travel complications,” so schools and businesses were on a normal schedule.
The ability to deal with the unexpected weather issues was hampered because most of the heavy snow equipment for highways had been moved south to Montgomery where the largest amount of snowfall was expected.
Gov. Robert Bentley had even declared a state of emergency Jan. 28 at 6 a.m. and activated the Alabama National Guard to be on stand-by, but no one was expecting what happened that day.
Unprepared and in a hurry to beat icy roads, thousands tried to make their way to pick up their children or travel home to safety, but that only led to gridlocked roads and thousands of cars stranded on interstates, major thorough fairs and side roads.
But in the midst of the chaos, Alabama Baptists stepped up to help.
Churches across the state opened their doors to offer warmth, food, clothing, a place to stay and fellowship.
Pastor Jeff Fuller, who serves Rockford Baptist Church and is a chaplain for the Coosa County Sherriff’s Office, said his wife, Tina, is his hero. When the snow began to fall and a church deacon called to say there were a dozen stranded truckers near the church, Tina Fuller “did whatever she could” to help.
Grocery stores were inaccessible and many were closed so the Fullers asked church members Emojean and Mable Austin for whatever food they could spare from their refrigerator and freezer. Tina Fuller gathered and organized the donated food to make a meal for those stranded, which by the end of the night totaled 25.
For 48 hours the Fullers and a team of nine volunteers from the Central Baptist Association church housed and fed the displaced commuters. Jeff Fuller said they worked in collaboration with law enforcement to help as many people as possible.
Mel Johnson, disaster relief strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said Rockford Baptist was a good example of a rural church becoming the “most significant source of support during a crisis for communities equipped with few emergency response resources.”
Jeff Fuller said, “We’ve done what we’re supposed to do. We’ve ministered to the people. … And we’ll do this again if needed and we’ll always do it again because God has called the Church to act and when we say we love somebody, we have to put that into action.”
Even though society can be called godless at times, godly community can emerge when difficult circumstances occur, Fuller added.
“This is what it’s all about. People who brought water and walked through traffic and delivered food. Sometimes it takes a crisis to act … but that’s God’s will.”
Another “godly” community surfacing during the chaos was the membership of North Valley Baptist Church, Odenville.
The church’s Early Learning Center teachers spent the night and took care of the children whose parents were not able to pick them up, according to pastor Chris Crain. The nearly 30 children and teachers slept in a safe and secure area while at least 20 people walked in off the street to seek shelter.
The St. Clair Baptist Association church partnered with Margaret Elementary School officials who shared extra cafeteria food. Church members went to pick up the supplies at the school on four-wheelers and the church served dinner and then breakfast and lunch Jan. 29.
“Everyone was safe and we made a lot of good friends. It was fun,” Crain said.
He even met a fellow Alabama Baptist pastor, Billy Little, who serves at Lister Memorial Baptist Church, Pell City. Little was stranded and made his way by foot to North Valley for shelter.
The situation reminded Crain that the staff and ministry team is “integral to the church’s mission.”
“This was one opportunity to demonstrate what it’s like to be a missionary in the Margaret area,” Crain said.
Nearby NorthPark Baptist Church, Trussville, also housed children from the church’s Noah’s Park weekday child-care ministry. Noah’s Park workers and several church staff members stayed with the children, prepared meals and turned the event into a spontaneous church lock-in experience complete with games and fun activities.
Pastor Bill Wilks posted photos and updates on his Facebook page throughout the afternoon, night and following day to assure concerned parents of their children’s safety.
First Baptist Church, Hayden, also opened its doors to help. Pastor Jeremy Powell said the Friendship Baptist Association church partnered with the Red Cross.
In the Sylacauga area Larry Morrison, minister of education and administration for First Baptist Church, Sylacauga, said hotels were full so the church opened its doors and partnered with the City of Sylacauga, Coosa Valley Ministerial Association and EMA, who provided blankets and cots.
When First, Sylacauga, opened its doors Jan. 28 at 2 p.m., seven people came in for shelter within 30 minutes, Morrison said.
Nic Seaborn serves as the associate pastor of Raleigh Avenue Baptist Church, Homewood, and is pursuing a master of divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School at Samford University in Birmingham. The Homewood Police Department asked if the church would open its doors as a warming station for a few hours. Seaborn and other church member volunteers realized they would need to provide a place for people to stay the night. Twelve motorists stayed at the church and church members nearby donated blankets, sleeping bags, pillows and toiletries. Church members also donated food items and made meals of spaghetti and soup for lunch and dinner Jan. 29.
“Because of the love of this church family — that all comes through Jesus Christ — we could (serve those in need),” Seaborn said.
A few staff and church members of First Baptist Church, Birmingham, ended up stranded near the church and made their way there for shelter. They invited others stranded in the area in for coffee and use of the restrooms. As the day went on church members realized there were many people that were not going to be able to get home.
Matt Snow, a deacon at First, Birmingham, explained how Angela Evans, who works daily in the church’s kitchen as a part of ChefBob.com, Inc., also was stranded at the church and began cooking meals. Nathan Lyon, the church’s pianist, helped organize and implement ways to feed and house the stranded commuters. “Before we knew it we had served meals to 200 people,” Snow said. “We gave shelter overnight to more than 300 people. Then we were able to feed them breakfast the next morning.”
The crowd dwindled down to 30 people on Wednesday, some with disabilities and senior citizens, but by that night another 10 joined. “We were happy to have them stay another night,” Snow said.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen until it happens in ministry,” Snow said, “but it was a blessing for us and a blessing for folks that needed the security of a warm place to stay.”
Pastor Jeff James said Green Valley Baptist had a unique opportunity to serve during the storm.
At first the Birmingham Baptist Association church opened its doors and put out a sign that read “restrooms and free coffee,” but as the snow began to get heavier and the roads icier the church staff realized people were going to need a place to stay the night.
The City of Hoover requested that Green Valley Baptist serve as a temporary emergency room and triage unit for travelers who could not make it to area hospitals. By late afternoon an area in the gym was set up, and Michael Kurz, a UAB Hospital doctor, was there to serve patients. Some church members who are nurses came to help as well. The temporary medical unit saw 18 patients, three of which had serious enough injuries to merit more care at a hospital.
Church members and staff cooked meals and the City of Hoover assisted “in everything we needed,” James said, noting that the church would request groceries or other items and within 30 minutes the items would show up. City officials also brought 30 cots and 200-plus blankets.
Around 140 people spent Tuesday night in the church, some of that number included children enrolled in the church’s preschool program.
“Our (church) family members did everything they could to refresh others. It was a unique situation but people were so nice and so thankful. Some people (we helped) were saying, ‘We’ll be here on Sunday,’” James said.
“We made some new friends and some new contacts and hopefully made a tough situation a little better for some people.”
Countless other churches helped serve their areas including Hunter Street Baptist Church, Hoover; Dawson Memorial Baptist Church, Birmingham; West Mobile Baptist Church, Mobile; Greenbrier Road Baptist Church, Anniston; Point Mallard Parkway Baptist Church, Decatur; The Church at Brook Hills, Birmingham; Eden Westside Baptist Church, Pell City; First Baptist Church, Trussville; and Pumpkin Center Baptist Church, Quinton.
But churches were not the only places helping those in need. Samford University responded to the needs of several hundred commuting students and employees who were stranded on campus.
An emergency shelter was set up in the gym in Seibert Hall with mattresses provided by the residence life office and meals provided by Samford’s food service vendor.
Harry B. Brock III, Samford’s vice president, said, “Under the circumstances I think we can be proud of the way the campus has responded.”
Students and staff also ventured out to help those stranded in their cars along Lakeshore Drive delivering snacks and water.
Many businesses also offered food, shelter and warmth to those in need.
On Highway 280 in Birmingham, Chick-fil-A owner Mark Meadows, a member of Hunter Street Baptist, and his staff handed out more than 300 chicken sandwiches to those stuck in traffic Jan. 28. Then they prepared and delivered more than 1,000 chicken biscuits the next morning for those still stranded.
Hamburger Heaven on Highway 280 also had workers stranded at their restaurant. They found out around 60 staff members at national Woman’s Missionary Union up the hill were stranded without food so even though they were closed they made an exception and prepared dinner.
Judson College in Marion canceled classes Jan. 28–30, as did Samford, and the University of Mobile canceled classes Jan. 28 and day classes Jan. 29 and had a delayed opening on Jan. 30.
Of course, it was the elementary, middle and high schools that had the most difficulties. An estimated 11,375 students spent the night in central Alabama schools Jan. 28 with teachers and school staff staying to take care of them.
Ice, sleet and rain did eventually hit southern parts of the state Jan. 28, shutting down interstates, bridges, schools and businesses, but many places closed their doors in advance of the frigid weather. Despite that precaution, countless vehicles were left in ditches and multiple accidents still occurred.
At press time, there were seven reported deaths and 23 injuries associated with the storm statewide.
By mid-day Jan. 30 most roads began to clear and people were able to make their way home with many stories of their own from what has been called by some “Snowpocalypse 2014.”