By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector

161230-gatlinburg-drGATLINBURG — One month after a devastating fire swept through the Smoky Mountains, Gatlinburg residents are still picking up the pieces, literally.

Hundreds of Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have provided assistance since relief efforts began. Volunteers have done everything from providing hot meals and sack lunches to clearing charred trees off property and some demolition to sifting through ashes and debris in hopes of finding a family heirloom or simply an item with only sentimental value.

Most of all, they have shown the love of Christ to residents of Sevier County, many of whom lost everything they owned in the Nov. 28 fire that left 14 people dead, at least 160 people injured, and about 2,400 structures damaged or destroyed, including three Tennessee Baptist churches in Gatlinburg — Roaring Fork Baptist Church, Banner Baptist Church, and First Baptist Church.

Kaye Thomas, who along with her husband John, of First Baptist Church, Sevierville, are coordinating Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers, estimated between 75 and 100 volunteers have worked daily since relief efforts began in earnest when Gatlinburg reopened.

She said that volunteers had completed 147 different jobs prior to Christmas last week and that number has climbed this week though she did not have an official count as of Dec. 29.

“We have really helped a lot of people,” she acknowledged.

Thomas said the work of Tennessee Baptist DR volunteers have caught the attention of homeowners. She told the Baptist and Reflector that they had approximately 15 people come to the command center at First Baptist Church, Sevierville, on Dec. 27 to request help because they saw the quality of work volunteers did for their neighbors and friends.

Though the work has slowed down somewhat, there are still plenty of homes that need assistance, she said. Teams primarily have been cutting down trees and helping to remove debris along with sifting through ashes.

Sifting teams have found some valuable items such as jewelry and old coins, Thomas said. Just as important, they have found items of little monetary value, but high in sentiment, she added. Thomas told of one team that found a dog tag. While it seemed insignificant, it was treasured by the family because it belonged to a long-time family pet that had died the year before.

Larry McCroskey, a member of First Baptist, helped sift through ashes at five homes.

He noted that on Dec. 29 they found a diamond ring that belonged to the homeowner’s grandmother. “Every time we find something they get excited and emotional,” McCroskey said.

He acknowledged that it was gratifying to be able to return something to a homeowner when they thought they had lost everything.

McCroskey observed, however, that residents are realizing that they only lost “stuff” and they are grateful that their lives were spared. He noted everyone has a story to tell and volunteers have provided a listening ear to those individuals. “They want to talk about what happened and they want to tell their stories.”

McCroskey said the team he serves on prays before beginning a sifting session. “We want the homeowners to see Christ in us,” he said.

Wayne Parker, a volunteer from First Baptist Church, Powell, agreed. He told the Knoxville News-Sentinel Dec. 23 that “our real goal here is to spread the love of Christ and to talk to the people that we meet.”

Thomas stressed that Tennessee Baptists are making a difference in Sevier County. “Everybody that has come in has been so appreciative of what we are doing,” she said.

Thomas said it has been encouraging to see tourists beginning to return to Gatlinburg. “Traffic has been horrendous,” she said, but noted that was a good thing, especially for the businesses in the area that provide jobs to county residents.

Wes Jones, Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief specialist, said chain saw and sifting teams will be needed for at least the next two weeks. Interested DR volunteers can call 615-371-7926.

As of Dec. 28, Tennessee Baptists have given a total of $201,039 for relief efforts in Gatlinburg. Earlier this month, TBC President Steve Freeman encouraged every Tennessee Baptist to give at least $20 for Tragedy” to help victims of the fire.

To give, 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.”