MBC DR ministry continues to thrive
NAMB Disaster Relief czar analyzes past, future
By Brian Koonce
JEFFERSON CITY – Terry Henderson is a busy man. As the national disaster relief (DR) director for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), he is charged with coordinating some 1,500 DR units and more than 80,000 trained volunteers across the nation. This year alone, there have been only seven days when one of those units wasn’t responding to some sort of disaster.
With no reason to think the number of disasters – be they terrorist attacks, hurricanes, flood or earthquakes – will decrease, Henderson said Missouri Baptists are poised to be a key player in national responses. He addressed this and other issues during a roundtable discussion he and Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) DR Director Rick Seaton recently hosted with 100 DR volunteers from around the state.
“Across the entire middle United States and Missouri the numbers of units has really increased,” he said. “Missouri has really been good about moving into the coasts to back us up. We call on you a lot.”
Henderson said his office is planning Incident Command System (ICS) training in Missouri, which coordinates units locally and interfaces with other DR agencies like the Red Cross or the Salvation Army.
“It will be a great help once we get Missouri personnel trained in ICS, especially during hurricane season” he said. “Right now, I’m using ICS teams from Utah and Idaho a lot on the coast. Since Missouri is so centrally located to the different routes throughout the U.S., it will make it easier to deploy to a lot of different areas.”
Henderson knows disasters. Before coming on to the North American Mission Board (NAMB) in 2003 to head DR, he had 11 years’ experience as a Yellow Hat (DR volunteer) and had 28 years experience in firefighting and emergency services in Florida.
And there hasn’t been any shortage of high-profile disasters for the DR network to respond to in recent years. The feeding efforts during the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing brought Southern Baptist volunteers into the spotlight, and then the Yellow Hats were among the first ones responding to the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. Crews prepared a record number of meals in 2003 during Hurricanes Isabel and then came Katrina in 2005. That caused the paradigm to shift from a mindset of responding a single, brief incident to a years-long, sustained recovery effort.
“We’re still there,” Henderson said. “If you go into New Orleans and you’re wearing a yellow shirt, they know who you are.”
In the wake of Katrina, FEMA and other government agencies got the blame for a slow response and recovery effort, causing the Feds to look to Southern Baptists to figure out the best way to respond to disasters.
“Katrina caused them to realize government alone couldn’t handle it,” said Henderson, who sits on several government advisory panels. “We’ve become a leader within FEMA and Homeland Security and they want our opinion. They’re asking, ‘How do we work this out?’ and ‘How do volunteers fit in?’ State governments now just expect us to show up without being asked.”
The ministry has not only grown in the public’s or government’s eye, but participation among Southern Baptists is on the rise as well. There were 23,000 volunteers when Henderson took the job in 2003, compared to more than 80,000 today. Nationwide, there are 659 chainsaw, mud-out and roofing teams, 39 command and communication units, 23 child care teams and 20 chaplain units. There are also 659 mobile kitchens, 66 laundry and shower trailers, 37 water purification and transport units, and about 450 other specialized units ranging from dump trucks and cherry pickers to light towers and generators. Through 11 months of 2008, Southern Baptist Yellow Hats have served more than a half million man-hours, and prepared 5.5 million hot meals.
Disaster Relief in Missouri has grown, too. The number of trained volunteers has more than doubled since Hurricane Katrina, going from 1,200 to 2,600. There were 12 organized units in 2005 who responded to only one disaster. In 2008, there are 42 units that have tackled nine separate disasters, not including the MBC continuing partnership with First Baptist Church of Chalmette, La.
Since the numbers of trained volunteers has spiked so dramatically, more of them really isn’t the biggest Disaster Relief need. Just like most charities and non-profit groups, state convention DR funds as well as the SBC DR fund are suffering from the less-than-stellar economy.
“Donations are media driven and if it’s not on the TV for more than one day, people forget about it,” Henderson said. “We want to make sure we have the money to fund the small operations as well as the big ones.”
Money for gas, equipment and food poured in after high profile disasters like Katrina, but localized disaster responses like tornado cleanup can be very costly, but not publicized enough draw in donations. Bills for diesel to fuel generators or trucks hauling trailers full of chainsaws add up quick.
The other main need is to standardize and formalize the training process. This is particularly challenging because Baptist polity emphasizes a bottom-up style of governance. That means local churches, associations and state conventions are largely in charge of their own units, looking to Henderson’s office for coordination and help with logistics and support. NAMB has written the training manual new trainees work through, but each instructor is slightly different in the execution. For example, during the Iowa flooding this summer, a group of Missourians traveled to relieve an exhausted Iowa-based feeding unit. Their training in mundane details such as how best to wash the used cooking pans was just different enough keep things from running as smoothly as they could have. Toss in wide ranging health codes from county to county and state to state, and there is a real potential for confusion.
“We’ve need to get to that point where there isn’t any difference in the training regimens,” Henderson said. “When someone comes in to take your place, there shouldn’t be any difference in how things get done. Right now we do have across-the-board training, there is a little difference. It’s not that we’re doing a bad job – we’re doing a great job – it’s just that some states to doing things to a little higher standards than others. We need to take it to the next level.”
Henderson said he isn’t sure yet what role, he or Southern Baptist DR will play in FEMA’s strategy once President-elect Barack Obama takes office. But Henderson said being a voice at that table is a logistical convenience and doesn’t change the overall purpose and mission of service in Christ’s name during a crisis.
“We don’t rely on the government,” he said. “We can and will do this without them. Disaster Relief is one the best examples of the Cooperative Program in action. It’s also one the most effective evangelism tools.”
So far this year, DR volunteers – including 2,300 chaplains – have made 22,400 ministry contacts.
“We plant that seed,” he said. “We’re a platform and an entry point. You may not have heard of Southern Baptists, but you’ve probably heard of Disaster Relief.”