By Lonnie Wilkey
Editor, Baptist and Reflector
GATLINBURG — Ruth Martin is not likely to ever forget Nov. 28, 2016. That’s the day she became homeless.
The 91-year-old widow of a Tennessee Baptist pastor left her home of 40-plus years that night with just the clothes she wore.
As fire surrounded her home atop a mountain road overlooking the city of Gatlinburg, she and her son and daughter (who also had houses on the property) did what has come naturally over the years — they prayed.
With their cars blocked by fallen trees, they did not know if they could even get off the mountain. Martin’s daughter, Debbie Gillespie, said she prayed, “Lord, if you want us off this mountain, you will have to send someone to get us.” A moment after that prayer, she saw the headlights of a truck just a few houses down the mountain.
Her brother, Mark Martin, ran down to find a family that was evacuating from a rental house. The family willingly gave them space in their loaded truck with the only caveat of “we have to leave now.”
What sustained the elderly Martin, known as “Mama Ruth” to family and friends, that night and in the nearly eight months after the fire, is what has sustained her for her entire life — a deep faith rooted in her love for and trust in Jesus Christ.
Martin said she learned to trust the Lord not long after her husband, the late Clyde Martin, entered the ministry shortly after they married in 1950. Clyde Martin, who ministered for 70 years, died in 2013. He served as pastor of numerous Tennessee Baptist churches, including Roaring Fork Baptist Church in Gatlinburg (which was destroyed by fire and is in the rebuilding process) and throughout East Tennessee.
Times were hard, she recalled. Pastors and evangelists didn’t get rich back then, she acknowledged with a chuckle. “When things get tough, you learn to trust in the Lord. He never lets you down.”
That faith she learned then helped her in the aftermath of the fire when her son Mark returned to the mountaintop to find all three homes reduced to rubble and ashes. It continued even as she learned her home did not have enough insurance to help her rebuild on the site she and her husband moved to in 1975.
“The Lord proves Himself sufficient,” Martin affirmed.
John and Kaye Thomas, who coordinated Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief efforts in the area after the fire and are helping with rebuilding efforts, learned of the Martins’ plight through First Baptist Church, Sevierville, where both the Thomases and Martins are members.
They sent teams in to help sift through ashes and chainsaw teams spent about three weeks cutting the numerous trees that had fallen on the property.
Kaye Thomas discussed with them the need to obtain a line of credit before beginning to rebuild. “We didn’t know what we’d do,” son Mark acknowledged, noting that though they had insurance money it was not nearly enough. “We knew we would trust the Lord.”
Thomas convinced them that they needed to obtain a line of credit before they could help them rebuild. They began to explore options “but the Lord shut the door everywhere we went,” she recalled.
“I’m having faith in their faith until my faith is strong enough,” Kaye said with a laugh.
As people heard about the Martins’ needs, gifts of money and materials have begun to come in, she said. As a result, First Baptist Church and Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief recently began rebuilding efforts on two homes — one for Mark and one for Ruth and Debbie.
The unexpected gifts are no surprise to the Martin family. “My spiritual family came to my rescue when I needed it,” Martin said. “I don’t know what we would have done without disaster relief teams and local volunteers,” she added.
“God’s family is going to take care of each other,” she affirmed.
Martin is a strong believer in the promise found in Romans 8:28: “”We know that all things work together for the good of those who love God: those who are called according to His purpose” (HCSB).
“There was nothing good about that fire,” Martin said, “but when I look at the good that has come out of it and see what God has accomplished, I’m just grateful for what He has done.”
Daughter Debbie Gillespie agreed. “God will take care of His own. He has proven it over and over and He uses His children to be His hands and feet.”
Gillespie said their plight will make them more sensitive than ever to the needs of others. “We know what it’s like to be left without clothes and not know where you will go the next day.”
She, along with her mother and brother, are grateful for those who have helped and will help.
“We pray that people will feel the presence of the Lord when they step on that mountain,” she said.
The rebuilding efforts are being coordinated by First Baptist Church and Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief. Teams are needed for all phases of the construction.
Housing and meals are provided at First Baptist Church. For information, call 615-969-0410 or 865-207-9196.