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Wilcox County church becomes major player in tornado recoverycomment (0)

March 22, 2007

By Grace Thornton

Though it’s early in the year, Scott Armstrong already has a deep tan. And though it’s early in the day, he has a five o’clock shadow, too.

Over the past few weeks, Armstrong has done enough work and been consumed by enough loss to last three lifetimes. The lines between his two vocations, pastoral work and home repair, have become indistinguishable.

That’s what happens when a tornado nearly wipes your tiny town off the map.

On March 1, as major storms crossed the state, a tornado ripped through Armstrong’s community, Millers Ferry in Wilcox County, killing one person and damaging or destroying nearly 60 homes.

With the nearest emergency response units miles away, Riverview Baptist Church — the only church of any denomination near this fishing and boating nook — was called up. Wading through debris, wielding chain saws and talking with grieving homeowners, church members stepped out with a "tireless" vengeance to minister to their neighbors, said Armstrong, who serves as pastor.

"In a situation like this, you find out quickly who your neighbors are," he said, noting that Riverview Baptist members have been able to minister to many they had never met before. "It was a testimony of their (church members’) beliefs in action. People have been appreciative of the way the church has loved the community."

The Pine Barren Baptist Association church was planted there in the mid-1990s by Camden Baptist Church to minister to the residents of Millers Ferry — both permanent ones and weekenders. A decade later, opportunities have multiplied to do just that, Armstrong said. Riverview sits on the inland side of a tiny, one-lane wooden bridge that serves as the only route into or out of Sand Island, a residential area fronting the Alabama River. It was Sand Island that took the brunt of the tornado’s wrath, and when officials finally arrived at the scene, they closed off the bridge to everyone.

Everyone, that is, except church members. And that was because of their bright-red caps.

Walking through the area more than a week after the storm, a weary Armstrong adjusted his red cap — his all-access ticket to ministry in the devastated community — and smiled, thinking of God’s providence at Riverview. Just four months ago, the congregation erected a second building — but not a family life center or an education building as most churches do.

"We knew there was a need for a nearby emergency response of some sort, so church members got together and organized a volunteer fire department. We built the building next door to the church to house the equipment," Armstrong said.

The congregation raised funds to build the facility and buy equipment and uniforms, and the community named Armstrong fire chief. The electricity hadn’t even been connected to the little fire department — located a few steps from the sanctuary — when the tornado hit.

But the rescue mentality was already in place. The church doors have stayed open, and the place has buzzed with red-capped church members for days on end, serving food, providing water and sheltering victims.

"We’re just doing missions work — home missions this time," said church member Bob Casey.

"For a little church, I’m amazed," Armstrong said. "They have been tireless — cooking meals, climbing trees, driving front-end loaders … I figured we would run out of gas but nobody has."

Teams from churches as close as Camden and across the state have periodically appeared and helped with food preparation and cleanup. Much debris has been cleared, and trees have been cut and moved, but there is still much to be done.

Although the recovery effort is not dramatically large-scale in Millers Ferry, it is steady, and Riverview Baptists appreciate the support, Armstrong said.

He said the church also appreciated a check for $5,000 from the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions. "When that check came, we were up and running that day (serving food and acting as a shelter). It’s encouraging for a small church to say, ‘OK, now we have some resources to minister with.’ We were able to immediately help hurting people."

And with some other donations coming in from elsewhere — including a pumper truck for the new fire department — the church will be able to continue serving, he said.

"The church was organized strictly to reach this community, and they have really gotten out and taken hold of this opportunity," said John Marks, director of missions for Bethlehem and Pine Barren Baptist associations. "They are sharing Christ’s love with people who are looking for help from whoever will give it."

To find out how to assist in Pine Barren Association, call 251-267-3875.


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