Pensacola faces ‘greatest challenge we have ever faced’

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)--Bob Greene walked along the same paths he did as a teenager, crossed sidewalks where he had played and looked on the church where he was called to preach as a high school senior.

And he was filled with tears.

Whitfield Memorial Baptist Church in Pensacola stood in disrepair, a gaping hole in its roof, victimized by a bully named Ivan. The former pastor’s home, where he once lived while his father led the church, lay in shambles. The small congregation that remains was caught without wind insurance and may not be able to be recover from the building’s extensive damage.

Greene has served in the Florida Panhandle city since 1988, first as pastor of the Pine Summit Baptist Church and now as director of missions for the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association. He originally moved to the city during his high school years, left to attend Samford University in Alabama and New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary and married a Pensacola girl. So much of his life -- and heart -- is wrapped up in the water-framed city on the hill by the bay.

“It takes your breath away to see the destruction and breaks my heart to see the grief of our people. It’s overwhelming,” Greene said.

“Our people have never been tested like this before. It will be difficult to rebuild the lives of people who have lost everything.”

During the week after Hurricane Ivan hit the Gulf Coast, Greene, clad in shorts, T-shirt, hiking boots and cap, traveled to each of the association’s churches to assess damage and learn the needs of the staff and members. On Tuesday, Sept. 21, he and his wife, Cindy, journeyed with John Sullivan, executive director-treasurer of Florida Baptist Convention, into the southernmost areas of the Gulf Coast city.

The group traveled to Myrtle Grove Baptist Church, southwest of downtown Pensacola, where Arkansas Baptists are cooking meals that are being delivered into the community by both the church and Red Cross. They stopped by West Pensacola Baptist Church, which is serving as a FEMA commodity distribution point, and Circle Baptist Church, where a tree lay on the sanctuary’s roof.

At Warrington Baptist Church near the Pensacola Naval Air Station, Pastor Larry White and his son were cleaning up the sanctuary and debris on the grounds. Water from nearby Bayou Grande rose into the church, creating a water-logged mess. The smell of mildew now takes one’s breath away. The church office and roofs of two other buildings sustained damage. On the Sunday after the storm, a core group of 18 church members sat on the altar’s steps for worship, White said.

“Our people have their own problems,” White reported. “Our chairman of deacons had four feet of water in his house.” When told of the cleanup and recovery units stationed at nearby Myrtle Grove church, White said the congregation had hoped to assist in the Florida Baptist cleanup and recovery efforts.

Greene comforted him: “Help yourself, help your people and let us help you.”

Emerald Coast Community Church, a growing church positioned on the Bayou Grande, had many of its glass windows along the front of the church blown out by the storm. Greene surmised that the high tide caused by the storm most likely “took the building.”

Two churches located in a hard-hit area along Gulf Beach Highway, Perdido Bay and Pleasant Grove, were spared for the most part, receiving only a moderate amount of damage compared to the extensive devastation surrounding them.

All along the Gulf Beach Highway were surreal remnants of the storm, as an estimated 40-foot wave stripped out the bottom floor of homes and pushed belongings and household goods into the street. Splintered wood and garbage that once were homes and business now clog the scenic highway. Empty foundations line the debris-covered yards.

The assessment team concluded their survey by visiting two other churches: First Baptist, where the damage is estimated to be in the millions, and East Brent Baptist Church, where flat roofs were pulled off several buildings and the air conditioner was ripped off the roof.

In each location, Greene and Sullivan paused to pray with the church staff and told of available resources to help them to get back on their feet.

After seeing the damage to the city, Sullivan added, “We [the Florida convention staff] were beginning to think that we were recovering from the damage caused by Charley and Frances, but it will be a long, long time before Pensacola recovers.”

Many of the churches in the association are small, Greene said, composed mainly of senior adults “that don’t have the wherewithal to help themselves. Others are doing a great job in meeting needs, and some can’t and will need outside help.”

Most of the pastors are “resilient and stalwart,” Greene said, while others have cried with him.

The director of missions said “his heart is broken” when he considers James Hughes, pastor of Pleasant Hill Baptist Church, whose home was destroyed. “Many of our pastors and our families are just like others in our community and have great needs.”

Greene said Ivan’s destruction of homes and churches will be “the greatest challenge we have ever faced.”


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