By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector

Disaster relief volunteers of Knox County Association of Baptists work on some trees at the site of a burned home in Gatlinburg.

GATLINBURG — Disaster relief fire response “is so different … . We can’t go door to door saying, ‘Hey, we’re here for you,’ because there are no doors,” explained Kaye Thomas of Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief, referring to the hundreds of homes destroyed here by fires three months ago.

“But our yellow hats and blue shirts out on the mountains have really impressed people,” she added.

The Nov. 28 fires in Sevier County took 14 lives, left 160 people injured, and destroyed or damaged 2,800 structures including three Tennessee Baptist churches.

“We’ve sown a lot of seeds here in the community,” reported Thomas, referring to the gospel.

“We have talked with and prayed with every family (helped by TBDR) at least once and given out lots of Bibles,” added Thomas, who along with her husband John were incident commanders for Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief efforts.

Some details

Baptist disaster relief volunteers from Tennessee, Alabama, Virginia, North Carolina, Georgia, and Kentucky coodinated by Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief assisted 253 families who were fire victims here. That is about one fourth of the families affected based on unofficial reports of about 1,100 homes damaged or destroyed, said Thomas and Wes Jones, TBDR specialist for the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board. Well over 750 Baptist DR volunteers have served, added Jones.

No disaster relief volunteer has been seriously injured which is amazing considering the work which often involved using heavy equipment in the terrain of the Smoky Mountains, reported Thomas and Jones.

All the initial response to help families who have requested assistance should be completed by Feb. 28.

Also, the three Tennessee Baptist churches destroyed or damaged are doing well, pastors of the churches reported.

Roaring Fork Baptist Church, Gatlinburg, has seen 22 people make professions of faith since the fires. It is meeting at Camp Smoky of Sevier County Baptist Association and will end up with better facilities because of the fire. The rebuilding will be directed by Carpenters for Christ out of Alabama.

Banner Baptist Church, Gatlinburg, is busy helping the nine families of its small congregation recover and others in its community and will consider a building program in the future. The church lost its fellowship hall.

First Baptist Church, Gatlinburg, lost its youth building and suffered soot damage to much of its facility. Like Banner Baptist its focus now is helping families who were affected by the disaster.

In March Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief will begin the rebuilding phase of its response to the fires, reported Jones. In addition to rebuilding Roaring Fork Baptist, Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief will work with Appalachian Service Project to build houses for fire victims.

Roaring Fork Baptist

“I don’t think the devil thought this thing through all the way when the Lord gave him permission to take our building. He figured we’d lay down and quit but there’s no quit in us. We’re going to continue on until we’re whole again and over it,” said Kim McCroskey, pastor, Roaring Fork Baptist.

Jones and McCroskey agreed that Carpenters for Christ will save the church a lot of rebuilding money.

The new sanctuary will be double the size and the Family Life Center will match the sanctuary in style. The former buildings were debt-free, but unfortunately underinsured.

McCroskey said he is so thankful for gifts from the TBMB, churches, and individuals.

Also, he said, TBDR “has been a huge blessing to us … not just to us but to everybody in the neighborhood. … They’ve been all over doing a lot of work.”

Losing the church facilities was “almost like losing a loved one … but God has done some amazing things and He’s going to continue to,” described the pastor.

Banner Baptist

Pete Lamon, pastor, Banner Baptist, said the church is postponing any rebuilding plans so that it can help the nine families associated with Banner Baptist who lost everything. The church draws about 30 people each Sunday morning.

The church is collecting items for those families and storing them in two large storage containers on its property.

TBDR helped the church clean up what was left of the fellowship hall and will help create a temporary space to use for fellowship. Also TBDR volunteers and the Baptist association have helped some of the nine families who lost everything. He is so thankful, said Lamon.

“It makes you proud to be a Southern Baptist when you see what an organization can do … and the impact it can have in the middle of this tragedy.”

The disaster created an opportunity, he added. “Our job as a church is to come face to face with … people and talk to them,” said Lamon, noting that a part of the mountain culture leads people to be reluctant to ask for help.

As a result of these efforts, new people are visiting Banner Baptist. Lamon also believes Banner Baptist will end up with improved facilities when it begins a building program.

First Baptist, Gatlinburg

Larry Burcham, pastor, First Baptist, Gatlinburg, said the church’s focus is on the community since its damage is so minor compared to community needs.

The church had 24 families who lost their homes and others who lost businesses so a fire fund was established which is being used to help fire victims in the church and in the community, said Burcham. Gifts from the TBMB which “were a big help” were put in that fund, he said.

“We’re just trying to … catch folks who are as we say falling through the cracks,” said Burcham, adding that he has been overwhelmed by the generosity and goodness of people.

TBDR efforts

Jones thanked the hundreds of volunteers who have served the fire victims, providing more than 2,500 volunteer days, 600 hours of heavy equipment work, 1,200 ministry contacts, and 50 gospel presentations.

He also thanked people who have given so generously to the Tennessee Baptist East Tennessee Fires Relief Fund. Money from the fund has been spent on gifts to the three Tennessee Baptist churches affected, to buy food for volunteers and victims, and to rent equipment to help remove the debris, said Jones.

The work being done by Baptists would cost thousands of dollars and often would not be covered by insurance, noted Thomas.

The effort was supported by nearby First Baptist Church, Sevierville, which hosted the DR volunteers providing sleeping space, showers, kitchens for meal preparation, and support in many other ways.

God worked all of this out, said Kaye, which allowed them to coordinate the operation. They live in Sevierville and are members of First Baptist, Sevierville. Another part of God’s plan was their long-time DR experience since 1994. Finally, John is a retired building contractor.

Rebuilding phase

To help Carpenters for Christ build Roaring Fork Baptist, which is planned to begin in late May and continue through summer, contact Jones now at wjones@tnbaptist.org or 615-371-7927. To help Appalachian Service Project rebuild houses, contact him in March. Plans are for ASP to begin building in late March.

To fund the rebuilding phase of Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief response to the Sevier County fires, visit TNDisasterRelief.org/contributions or send a gift to Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief, P.O. Box 728, Brentwood, TN 37024. Write on the check that it is designated for “East Tennessee Fires Relief Fund.”