I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.
Churches charred. Businesses gone. Homes nothing but ash heaps and rubble. Some of the most beautiful country I’ve ever seen left a blackened wasteland.
A few hours of raging fire forever changed the lives of thousands.
One of those homes on top of one of those mountains belonged to the late Dr. Clyde Martin and his precious widow, Ruth. The families of their son, Mark, and their daughter, Debbie, also had homes there. All three houses and all the cars were destroyed. The Martin family lost everything and very nearly lost their lives. Downed trees blocked their driveway but they crawled into a truck with a nearby family and raced down the mountain to safety. My wife, Jeanne, and I sat and listened as they told how God orchestrated a way out of the inferno. We wept; we prayed.
Brother Clyde was a personal encourager to me when we moved to Morristown about 25 years ago from Mississippi. He served as associate pastor to Dr. R.G. Lee at Bellevue Baptist Church, Memphis, and went on to become a great pastor himself. He was a retired pastor of Calvary Baptist in Morristown and would often stop by my office and pray over me with tender passion. I then had the privilege to be the pastor to this great pastor and his family when I moved to First Baptist Church, Sevierville. Four other preachers and I eventually conducted his funeral. My heart broke listening to his family and knowing how much that homestead meant to brother Clyde.
The firestorm that swept through Sevier County and the Gatlinburg area hit me like a gut punch. That’s where Jeanne and I went on our first vacation 40 years ago. We raised our girls in that area. They were both married there. The people of FBC, Sevierville, and Sevier County are like family. A piece of our hearts will always be there.
It’s hard to believe that just two weeks earlier Tennessee Baptists gathered in Sevier County to enjoy one of the greatest and most unified annual meetings in our history. The week after Thanksgiving Sevier County suffered through the greatest and most horrifying firestorm in its history. Here’s what we know to date.
- 2,000-plus businesses and homes damaged or destroyed
- 14 lives confirmed lost
- 17,000 acres burned
- 14,000 people displaced
- An entire tourist-driven economy crippled
It is hard not to feel helpless in situations like this, but I thank God that I am not helpless; that you are not helpless. Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief was on the scene ministering even while buildings smoldered from the ravaging fires the night before. Those DR teams have fed damage assessment teams, state troopers, national guardsmen, evacuees, and volunteers there to help people get their lives back together. Service is a great remedy for the feeling of helplessness and callouts for DR volunteers are ramping up as assessment teams finalize specific needs.
The thing about disasters is that a large number of people have simultaneously experienced a crisis that has created a great need and left them vulnerable. In a single moment, the basic necessities of food and shelter have been stripped from them, and they need help.
They need someone to show up. That’s what our Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers do. They show up. They show up and lighten the unbearable load of loss. They serve. They pray. They hug. They cry with people. They share the gospel of Jesus Christ and lead people to the feet of the One who can help them with their greater disaster, which is separation from God the Father.
Tennessee Baptist Disaster Relief is comprehensively one of the most tangible ways we as Baptists minister to both the physical and spiritual needs of people. Disasters are costly and to effectively minister to people takes money. I am thankful that churches through their Cooperative Program and Golden Offering for Tennessee Missions giving enable Tennessee Baptists to have this important ministry. However, large-scale events create great financial needs and special financial contributions are applied directly to alleviating those needs.
Newly elected Tennessee Convention President Steve Freeman has challenged Tennessee Baptists to give $20, calling it “20 for Tragedy.” As he said, it might not sound like a lot of money but the reality is that cooperatively, if even just 100,000 Tennessee Baptists contributed $20 toward disaster relief this Christmas, Tennessee Baptists would have an additional $2 million with which to minister to the needs of people — and think what we could do together if 300,000 Tennessee Baptists gave $20. And remember, 100 percent of that is directly applied to helping people with none of it used for administration costs.
Many have already given — thank you — and if you would like to participate, I’d encourage you to visit TNDisasterRelief.org/contributions, or you can mail a check designated, “Disaster Relief” to Tennessee Baptist Mission Board, P.O. Box 728, Brentwood, TN 37024.
God is definitely at work through this challenging time and we’ve already heard the stories of several who have accepted Jesus. Amen! Our Great God can redeem even this devastating event in the lives of so many, but it is important that Tennessee Baptists show up too.
There is not always joy on this journey, but there is always purpose and peace.