After Ivan’s rout of Pensacola, faith begins its healing work

PENSCOLA, Fla. (BP--Pensacola, the gleaming seaport on a hill that has opened its emerald rivers and tributaries to sailors and seafarers for centuries, lies battered and bruised, the victim of an unwelcome and angry guest from the sea.

Ivan, a category 3 hurricane at landfall, shredded million-dollar beachfront homes, historic buildings and other homes in its path, crumpling bridges and roads, and shattering the lull of complacency for the county’s 300,000 residents.

“No one thought it would happen here. It was going to happen in the next county,” Ted Traylor, pastor of Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, reflected. “We’ve gone from unbelief to shock and now faith is beginning to bubble.”

At the highest point overlooking the historic city stands the tattered and torn First Baptist Church. Constituted in 1847, its shingles and roof tiles litter the streets while many of its sand-colored bricks lie precariously on the roof and dormer window of a home across the street. Ivan ripped two holes in the sanctuary’s roof, sucked out the windows and frames from the church’s educational building and peeled the top off a building where a Korean congregation meets. A hairline crack in the brick mortar stretches from the sidewalk pavement to the third story.

Still standing is the bell tower bearing the inscription found in Proverbs 18:10, “The name of the Lord is a strong tower, the righteous runneth into it and is safe.” Its stained glass windows were less stalwart, shattered by the storm’s 130 mph wind.

On that fateful night, the light in the bell tower stayed lit until 10 p.m., nearly three hours after the hurricane strength winds were felt, said building superintendent Sam Solomon, who rode out the Sept. 15 storm in the church with a dozen members. “We have millions of dollars of damage here,” he said.

On a crisp, cool Sunday morning three days after the winds died down, about 90 members greeted each other with tears and hugs as they gathered in the chapel for worship, singing hymns with words of God’s comfort -- “He is able to deliver me” – and words of encouragement – “Be strong in the Lord.”

“In times like this it’s important for the people of God to come together to reflect on our blessings. A lot of people have needs,” said pastor Robert Mills, who had resigned from the church on the Sunday before Ivan struck but continues to lead the church members through these trying days.

“Who could have ever guessed that in a week’s time so much would have changed,” Mills asked the congregation.

Many in the church had suffered damage to their homes, said Mills’ wife, Angela, including a church deacon whose home was completely destroyed.

Even as the congregation reflected on their own needs, their mission-mindedness was apparent as a signup sheet on tables outside the chapel asked for prayer commitments for the Florida Baptist Convention’s week of prayer for state missions.

Across town to the west, Myrtle Grove Baptist Church is ministering to its struggling middle-class neighborhood where fallen trees and power wires line debris-covered roads. “This community is really hard hit,” said pastor Ron Lentine. “We are so close to the water and the Naval Air Station that I knew there would be great needs.”

Even before the storm, Lentine had called the Florida Baptist Convention asking for a mobile feeding unit to be stationed at the church, and an Arkansas Baptist disaster relief team arrived to begin cooking lunch on Sunday.

During the Sunday service, Lentine encouraged his church members by asking them to volunteer if they were able and to ask for help if they were in need. He outlined the various services provided by Florida and Southern Baptists, assuring the congregation that they were not alone in their plight.

“I am so proud that I am a Southern Baptist,” church members Linda Andrew said. “I’m so proud for what they are doing to step in during this time.”

Before the service, 14-year-old Heather Lutrick began crying when her mother, Patty, 47, told her that Arkansas Baptist chainsaw crews would help clear Patty’s parents’ home. Living 300 feet from the bayou, their home “was devastated. There was no structural damage, but everything took in water,” she said.

“This is all so much on us and I thought we were doing fine,” Patty Lutrick said. “We are taking it a step at a time, praying and being with our family.

Getting to Myrtle Grove church that morning would have tested the patience of any believer. The church is located next to Escambia High School where water and food rations were being distributing, causing lines of cars to snake around the corners and side streets and blocking off all accesses to the church’s parking lot.

Looking at the miles-long line, church member Tony McFarland, 54, recalled that he had waited in line for four hours on Saturday to get water and ice. “There [are] a lot of desperate people in that line,” he said. “But this church has been a beacon of hope for this community. We will turn this crisis around and mean it for good.”

“Some of my people are hurting,” said Laddy Pierce, pastor of West Pensacola Baptist Church where about 40 people attended worship services that morning. The father of one of the church members died of a stroke on Saturday after seeing his home when he returned after evacuation. “Some of our people are not prepared and do not have any water.”

The church received “significant damage” from the storm, Pierce said, adding that the auditorium is leaking. A weekday childcare ministry will be closed until the damage is fixed. “I am concerned how this will affect the employees,” the pastor said. “They have no other source of income.”

On that Sunday morning, Pierce preached on Psalm 130:7-8, giving church members an acrostic for HOPE: hope in hearing; opportunity as Christians to share a cup of cold water; power of God; and exploring one’s Christian faith.

The congregation has been cooking food for the members since the hurricane and providing food from its food pantry.

“I’ve never seen such devastation,” said Larry Stephenson, pastor of the Circle Baptist Church. “We are not doing so well. It’s been hard on us, but we will get through.”

About 20 church members gathered at the church during the storm, “staying awake and praying.” One church member’s husband who was not a Christian was in the group that weathered howling wind and breaking glass. “He said he never knew what it meant to be a Christian until this,” Stephenson recounted.

Two other churches in Pensacola’s western neighborhoods also received extensive structural damage -- Brownsville Baptist Church and Warrington Baptist Church -- as “Ivan the terrible” left holes in sanctuary roofs, awnings shredded and stained glass windows in pieces. East Brent Baptist Church also received significant damage.

Even without electricity, more than 1,000 church members gathered at water-flooded Olive Baptist Church to hear Traylor preach on Psalm 29. “We will be able to get through this because we have the greatest Creator, greatest community and greatest church,” the pastor said.

“We are now ready to take a breath, see our faith rise,” Traylor said in encouraging the congregation to take the storm and turn it into an evangelistic opportunity.

Bob Greene, director of missions for the Pensacola Baptist Association, spent Sunday visiting churches in Innerarity Point and Perdido Key, where pastor Wallace Nichols was pulling up wet carpet in the pastorless Trinity Baptist Church where a group of senior adult women “needed help” with the task.

Greene said he had visited James Hughes, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, whose bedroom was hit by a pine tree. “His home is destroyed,” Greene said.

“I gave away a lot of hugs and I cried with many people. I’ve seen a lot of grief and a lot of resiliency.”

As Greene returned to the Florida Baptist Convention operations center located at Olive Baptist Church in Pensacola, where hundreds were being fed at by an Oklahoma Baptist feeding unit, Greene noted: “We have sent groups to Ground Zero in New York City and other relief efforts, but we have never been on the receiving end.”

Adding that he had spent the days leading up the storm telling churches about the Maguire State Mission Offering, Greene added, “It thrills my soul to say that Florida Baptists care. It is a great time to be a Southern Baptist.”


Barbara Denman is director of the Florida Baptist Convention’s communications department.

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