By Connie Davis Bushey
News Editor, Baptist and Reflector
GATLINBURG — Tennessee Baptist Mission Board (TBMB) leaders are grateful for the quick response, both financially and with physical assistance, following the wildfires which struck the Smoky Mountains in late November.
What’s more, help will continue in the months to come, leaders agreed.
“I am thankful for the quick response of our disaster relief volunteers at the very start of this tragedy in Sevier County to meet the immediate needs of first responders and evacuees,” said Randy C. Davis, president and executive director of the TBMB.
“We are now in a period of lining out work for months to come. Once the news reporters and photo ops have gone away, Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers will still be there,” Davis pledged. “We are committed to help in every way we can during the rebuilding and restoration of the homes and churches in the Gatlinburg area,” he added.
As many as 40-50 Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers have been working daily to help wildfire victims and teams are scheduled through the first week of 2017, said Wes Jones, Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief specialist.
“Needs for Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers are being adjusted as requests come in,” added Jones.
To help burned out homeowners, Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers are conducting assessments of needs at burned homes, doing ash out, looking for valuables, using chain saws to remove damaged trees, and doing demolition, said Jones. Chaplains also are providing spiritual assistance.
Wildfires which spread from the Smoky Mountains to Gatlinburg on Nov. 28 killed 14 people, causing the evacuation of 14,000 and damaging more than 2,400 structures, media reports state. Two teenage boys, ages 15 and 17, have been arrested on charges of aggravated arson in the Sevier County fires. The boys were hiking and tossing lit matches onto the ground.
Jones foresees Tennessee Baptists helping fire victims here rebuild. Residents with good insurance probably will want professionals to rebuild homes and churches, he noted. “But if they need assistance we’ll come alongside them and help as much as we can.”
Jones said that the area has received the presidential disaster declaration which opens up a lot of resources for those affected. This may allow some FEMA temporary housing to be brought in for those who lost their homes while they are being rebuilt.
Baptists have stepped in to help some of the victims. Some homeless folks are being housed by members of First Baptist Church, Sevierville, said Craig Mintz, associate pastor: equipping. He knows of several church members who own cabins who are welcoming folks who lost their homes to use the cabins free of charge.
“We’re really proud of them for being generous,” said Mintz.
TBDR volunteers also have assisted in demolishing the one Baptist church which was destroyed by the blaze and are working on one of the two damaged Baptist churches, Jones said. The demolition work was done at Roaring Fork Baptist Church, Gatlinburg, by Nolachucky Baptist Association, based in Morristown, along with Wild Building Contractors, and is being done at Banner Baptist Church, Gatlinburg, by Knox County Baptist Association.
Pastor Pete Lamon of Banner Baptist told of being cut off by the fires on Radio B&R, a podcast, as he and his wife tried to check on some of their property and the church. The fires ultimately destroyed half the church’s property, along with the homes of seven church members, he recounted. Radio B&R can be found at baptistandreflector.org/br-radio.
From his experience of 15 years as a volunteer fireman, Lamon said he had never seen a fire like this one — moving downhill pushed by severe winds. The fire “looked like a blow torch,” he said. “It was the type of fire, you don’t control it, you just get out of its way … .”
The church, which draws about 35 people on Sunday morning, saw about a quarter of its congregation affected “in a devastating way,” he added. Also Banner Baptist lost its newest structure, the fellowship hall, and the main structure suffered smoke damage and some melted siding.
Lamon told Chris Turner, director of communications of the Tennessee Baptist Mission Board in the podcast, that God led him to preach a sermon series just prior to the fires on “When the Storms of Life Are Raging, What Do You Do?” Lamon referred to the book of Job and discussed how God will give Christians a “wake up call” through suffering. He thought he was addressing the political and social issues of the day, he added.
“I don’t believe God was the author of this event, but I do believe He was sovereign in it.”
The congregation which met the Sunday following the fires started healing, learning from each other, and helping others, Lamon said. Banner Baptist will use this tragedy as an opportunity to continue to adjust to meet ministry needs of residents and tourists, he added.
The best kind of help the church can receive right now is financial so the church can help specific needs of families, said the pastor. He also hopes people won’t forget these needs in a few months.
A total of 289 volunteers have served through TBDR giving 12,005 hours, reported Jones. In support roles are TBDR volunteers operating a laundry/shower unit from Chilhowee Baptist Association, based in Alcoa, and cooks working out of First Baptist Church, Sevierville. Meals are still being prepared for first responders, TBDR volunteers, and volunteers at a distribution center and resource center. Most of the food is being provided by TBDR along with support from the American Red Cross. TBDR volunteers are staying at the church. Volunteers also are operating a laundry/shower unit of First Baptist, Sevierville, and a toilet unit from Virginia Baptists to meet needs at the church.
Additionally, Tennessee Baptists are assisting Sevier County Baptist Association by organizing items given for churches to distribute. Robert Nichols, director of missions of the association, said no more items for victims are needed.
Though he has been heavily involved in information sharing and managing supplies, Nichols said he has heard of many residents waiting for jobs to become available because they lost their place of employment. He is proud to report that many Baptist churches and individuals here are responding to help fire victims.
Mintz agreed, noting that church members of First Baptist, Sevierville, have comforted fellow church members who taught and worked at a school in Gatlinburg. One of the young students was one of the fatalities of the fire.
Members also have stepped in to help the six families who are members of the church who lost homes, the several members who lost businesses, and those who were displaced because their homes were damaged, reported Mintz. Some could not return for a while because of smoke damage. Of course, many friends and family members of church members also were fire victims and are being helped by church members, he added. First Baptist, Sevierville, draws about 1,900 people to Sunday morning activities.
Additionally, about 200 church members have served through TBDR and the church has adjusted facility use to make space available to TBDR because of the many members who are very involved in the ministry, reported Mintz.
“Everybody’s been champions about it,” said Mintz.
Jones asked for “continued prayer for the people as they start to put things back together. … There’s a lot of work to be done and it’s just going to take some time to do it.”
He thanked Tennessee Baptists and others from “around the state and the nation for the generous gifts that they’ve given and the things that they’ve brought for the folks there in East Tennessee. …
“Because it’s a long-term project and not just a short-term project, any funds given to Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief will be used over the next number of months to assist the people,” explained Jones.
As of Dec. 15, gifts to the fire relief fund were approaching $200,000. The needs, however, are expected to exceed that amount, Davis told the Baptist and Reflector. Many people are not considering the residents who did not lose their homes due to fire, but could lose them if they cannot pay mortgages due to the fact they worked for businesses that have not yet reopened, he observed. Issues such as those will be considered in the coming year, Davis added.
TBC President Steve Freeman has 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 TN Baptist Disaster Relief, P.O. Box 728, Brentwood, TN 37024. Write on the check the nature of the designation, which to help these fire victims would be East Tennessee Fires Relief Fund.