God at work in Hamilton County amid tough times
By David Dawson
Baptist and Reflector
CHATTANOOGA — The residents of Hamilton County have experienced a trilogy of turmoil in the past few months.
It began when the COVID-19 pandemic first took hold, throwing daily routines into a state of flux. Then came a deadly tornado that created another wave of emotional and physical challenges. And in recent days, Hamilton County, like the rest of the country, has been dealing with racial unrest that was ignited by the death of George Floyd.
The three events might lead some to wonder, “where has God been in all this tragedy?”
Dennis Culbreth, the director of missions for Hamilton County Baptist, said the answer is clear — the Lord has been present and active through it all.
God has brought healing from the heartache and hardships by working through His people, Culbreth said.
“Our folks, our churches, really rose to the occasion, again and again,” Culbreth said. “I’m so proud of our pastors, and (the other church members) who have really stepped up to the plate and gone to work, helping others.”
Ternae Jordan, senior pastor at Mount Canaan Baptist Church, said that while many churches have been unable to hold worship services, the members have found ways to make Christ known in the Chattanooga area.
“While we have not been the church gathered, we have seen God’s glory revealed in the church scattered,” Jordan said. “The body of Christ as a whole has responded to the needs of our community through volunteerism and resources to assist in these difficult times.”
The city of Chattanooga was slated this year to be the focus of City Reach — an initiative designed to spread the gospel in Tennessee’s most influential cities.
But City Reach Chattanooga is playing out a little differently than planned, with rebuilding and recovery projects taking the place of some of the previously-scheduled events.
“The youth groups that were coming in for City Reach — to do Backyard Kids Clubs, Vacation Bible School and all those things — are now doing ‘disaster relief summer trips’ instead,” said Culbreth. “We’re going to start rebuilding, and they are going to help with that.”
The “re-tooling” of City Reach is just one example of how God’s people have responded to this difficult stretch, which has perhaps been the most challenging 100 days in Hamilton County history. Groups of believers have found ways to minister during each episode in this series of tragedies in the Chattanooga area:
- COVID-19: A food bank was created to aid those who were facing unexpected hardships brought on by the pandemic.
- Tornado, severe weather: Disaster relief teams were embedded in Hamilton County, spending days and weeks, working tirelessly to help assist the recovery efforts.
- Racism crisis: A massive prayer rally, which included pastors and church members from diverse backgrounds, was held in the downtown area to help promote racial harmony. The event drew an estimated crowd of 1,500 attendees.
Jordan said he has been both excited and encouraged by what he has seen.
“The body of Christ has banded together collectively to show the visible manifestation of God’s love through prayer and service to our neighbors,” Jordan said.
Culbreth added that he never could have envisioned 2020 unfolding quite like it has.
“I’ve pastored and served churches for 40 years, and this is the hardest time I’ve ever seen in my life,” he said. “I’ve seen a lot of crazy things, but this takes the cake.”
AIDING WITH THE TRANSITION
Culbreth said when social distancing guidelines were first implemented, churches were overwhelmed with uncertainty. Culbreth said he and other leaders in the Hamilton County area tried to provide as much assistance as possible to help churches navigate the uncharted waters.
“When it happened, it was like all of a sudden, churches had to shut down,” he said. “They didn’t know what was going to happen. And truthfully, they still don’t really know what’s going to happen when this thing is over. For now, there have been a lot of questions. Are people going to quit giving? Will people come back? So, we helped them transition through that. If I didn’t have the answer, we tried to find someone who could probably help.”
Culbreth noted that many churches ran into some issues when they attempted new ways of “doing ministry” — such as online services and online giving. He said this was especially true for smaller churches that had not previously had much of an online presence.
“We helped them transition in their worship services, mainly by enlisting some of our larger churches who already had some great online ministry services,” Culbreth said. “They stepped up to the plate and offered some of our smaller churches training.”
Red Bank Baptist Church, Chattanooga, was among the churches that volunteered to partner with some of the smaller churches to help with online functions during the early stages of the pandemic.
Jordan noted that Mount Canaan Baptist, like some other churches in the area, has thrived in recent weeks despite the pandemic.“Even though we have not been gathering physically, we have seen our congregation tripled through virtual worship,” Jordan said.
Another important development during the early stages of the pandemic was the formation of a food bank to assist families with some of the basic needs that were no longer being met because of the COVID-19 crisis.
Jordan helped spearhead the project, which involved churches donating food and setting up feeding stations and distribution centers in certain communities of Hamilton County.
“We were aware that families in our most vulnerable communities were struggling to put food on the table,” Jordan said. “Through a joint collaboration with the churches of the Hamilton County Baptist Association (HCBA), and with Dennis (Culbreth’s) leadership, a call was put out for our churches to rise to the challenge of impacting these families. It has been amazing to watch the body of Christ respond.”
Mount Canaan Baptist and the Village Church, with the assistance of HCBA, have fed — and continue to feed — hundreds of families through the food distributions.
“Even in the most challenging season of our lifetime, the Hamilton County churches have been powerful witnesses and a beacon light in sharing the love of Christ with so many,” Jordan said.
Culbreth agreed, saying: “I just want to brag on our churches because they did a phenomenal job. I mean, day after day, we had them dropping off food at the associational office. … We had rooms full of food.”
RESPONDING TO THE CALL
On the night of April 12 (Easter Sunday), an EF-3 tornado touched down in the Hamilton County area, remaining on the ground for an estimated 14 minutes and traveling more than 14 miles from Southeast Chattanooga to Ooltewah. Three deaths and numerous injuries were reported.
Culbreth, like many residents in Hamilton County, had gone to sleep that night without being overly concerned about the weather. He had heard reports that there could be a few storms overnight, but he had no idea how severe those storms would actually be.
“I got a call about 5:30 or 6 o’clock the next morning, and it was one of my pastors telling me that he had lost his house in a tornado,” said Culbreth. “And I remember thinking, ‘Well, maybe this was a tornado that just swooped down in one neighborhood.’ It wasn’t until I began to get more phone calls that I really realized what had happened and the amount of destruction through the southern part of Hamilton County and on into Bradley County.”
Culbreth said he was stunned when he drove around the area. “It looked like a bomb had gone off. There was so much devastation.”
“One day it’s Easter, and the next day, I’m pulling limbs and working with disaster relief crews,” Culbreth said. “We didn’t even think about COVID-19 there for a while. We were just out there working because we’ve got to get these trees off of houses. I’ve never seen such devastation in my life.”
The recovery process started almost immediately, and large groups of Christ-followers were among the first to spring into action. Disaster relief efforts began that morning, and stretched out for several weeks, with some DR volunteers staying for more than a month. It is estimated that more than 800 DR volunteers came to the area during the course of the next several weeks.
Doyle Pittman, the DR director for Hamilton County, spent weeks at Concord Baptist Church, which served as the headquarters for the disaster relief teams. Pittman slept in an RV each night, and rarely left his post unless it was to go work on a project.
Culbreth said more than 500 families have been assisted, and that the efforts “are still ongoing.”
Not long after the tornado, another type of storm hit the Chattanooga area — a storm of racial unrest. Sparked by the death of George Floyd, protests were held across the nation, with some of the gatherings turning violent.
Jordan and Culbreth soon began working together on a project to promote unity in the area.
“Ternae called me and said, ‘Dennis, we’ve got to do something, and we need to do it quick,” Culbreth said.
Jordan suggested hosting a prayer rally with pastors from diverse backgrounds and races coming together “in a spirit of unity.” The wheels were then put in motion, and — a mere four days later — the prayer rally was held at Mount Canaan Baptist.
Attendance at the event surpassed virtually all expectations.
“Quite honestly, we were amazed at the turnout,” said Culbreth. “Remember, we only had a few days to prepare this.”
The prayer rally was the latest example of how God is showing His sovereignty in Hamilton County, even when the days seem long and the sky is dark.
“There are around 950 parking spots at the church, and every spot was filled,” Culbreth said. “It was a phenomenal time.”