Southern Baptist teams gear up for long-term relief & ministry to Asia's tsunami victims

RICHMOND, Va. (BP)--Southern Baptist relief workers shifted into high gear as the New Year dawned over tsunami-devastated southern Asia, where millions are homeless and desperate for help.

Working with local churches and officials, the Southern Baptist workers continued to provide food, water, medical supplies and other aid to survivors in heavily damaged coastal villages in Thailand and Malaysia. Meanwhile, assessment teams and specially trained disaster relief volunteers were heading for Sri Lanka and the Indonesian province of Aceh, where more than 100,000 people have died.

"We anticipate a long-term response -- and we're going to need divine leadership," said Jerry Rankin, president of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board.

By Jan. 3, the International Mission Board had approved $300,000 in project requests from relief workers on the field for planned aid -- with more aid requests expected.

The relief funds will pay for food, clean water, water purification equipment, blankets, tents, sheeting, basic medical supplies and body bags. More than $200,000 will go to the hard-hit Indonesian island of Sumatra and the devastated Aceh province there.

$300,000-PLUS ALREADY CONTRIBUTED

By New Year's Eve, more than $300,000 in aid had been contributed online at www.imb.org through the IMB relief fund. That amount nearly doubles the $170,000 given online to the mission board for all of 2003. The online total was rising rapidly and doesn't include checks sent by regular mail in the days immediately following the tsunami disaster.

"I think Southern Baptists saw the need and they responded in an outstanding way," said David Steverson, IMB vice president for finance.

Southern Baptists and other Christians can send financial gifts for aid through the IMB general relief fund. Send gifts designated "Asia Earthquake Disaster Relief" to the International Mission Board, P.O. Box 6767, Richmond, VA 23230. To give online, go to the International Mission Board's website, www.imb.org, and click on "Give Now."

"We are grateful for the outpouring of compassion and concern expressed in praying for the people who have been impacted by this tragedy," Rankin said. "With a significant number of Southern Baptist missionaries in most of the affected countries, we are positioned for providing immediate aid and long-term ministry in partnership with local government officials and other Christian organizations. Because you already support missionary personnel and administration through your gifts to the Cooperative Program and the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, 100 percent of relief funds will go to help those in need."

Rankin appealed to churches to give "over and above" to the relief effort -- not at the expense of year-end Lottie Moon gifts to support missions.

"A massive outpouring of support for disaster relief is needed by our missionaries seeking to minister to the suffering," he said. "This need is coming on the heels of the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering, when many churches have already given generously to support the International Mission Board, and others are planning to do so. If giving were to be diverted by those yet to give to the Lottie Moon offering, it would undercut the foundation of our ability to respond to relief ministries that are needed."

HARD-TO-REACH AREAS

Gaining access to parts of Indonesia has been particularly tough, with roads and bridges destroyed, communication lines down and flooding as far inland as 14 kilometers in some areas of low-lying Aceh. Still, assessment teams have been allowed to enter the regions most devastated by the waves. IMB disaster relief personnel are working with Indonesian Baptists to get immediate aid to stricken areas.

Food, water and plastic shelters are being shipped in and distributed by relief teams -- primarily local Baptists supported by IMB resources and planning. Southern Baptists also are sending water purification units.

Aceh lies on the northernmost point of Sumatra. This heavily populated area, closest to the epicenter of the earthquake that launched the tsunamis in the Indian Ocean Dec. 26, already has reported more than 100,000 deaths. That toll almost surely will rise. In recent years the region has seen ongoing conflict between Muslim extremists and the government. However, groups previously in conflict with the government have declared they are ceasing resistance activity to allow aid to flow more freely into stricken areas.

In Sri Lanka, workers and volunteers will try to respond to the most critical needs: clean water and sanitation, food, clothing and shelter. The first IMB disaster relief team was scheduled to enter Sri Lanka Jan. 9. Specially trained volunteer teams from various states are expected to follow in the weeks to come.

"At present there are scores of government and non-government organizations at work and entering the affected areas," said a mission leader in the region. "It's difficult for outsiders to even book flights into the hardest-hit places. A month from now, 80 percent of these foreign aid agencies will be gone. However, the needs will continue for many months and even years to come, and the IMB intends to be there assisting with the rebuilding of homes and lives."

A representative from the IMB International Prayer Strategy Office thanked Southern Baptists for their persistent prayer and asked them to continue.

"Pray for Christians to lean upon the Lord’s strength and to be strong witnesses of His mercy," the representative said. "Please pray for relief workers as they press on in the midst of such tragedy -- that they will have endurance beyond measure and wisdom in organizing their work. And for all who wake up each morning wondering how they can continue in this day of trouble, please pray that they will heed the answer of God."

VOLUNTEERS URGED TO BE FLEXIBLE

Relief specialists also appealed to volunteers anxious to rush to the region to wait until the time is right.

"The first wave of response after a disaster does not always meet the most critical needs," stressed "Pat Julian" (name changed for security reasons), IMB relief coordinator based in Southeast Asia. "What we need at this point is for churches and conventions preparing to help out to be flexible. Be willing to be assigned to areas that are out of your normal partnerships. A church or convention may be in direct contact with personnel in one of these affected areas, but we may need their expertise more in another area to make a greater impact."

In Sri Lanka, certain areas cut off by water and landslides have been seen only by aerial photography. Large parts of decimated Aceh in Indonesia remain inaccessible by rescuers.

"As these places continue to open up, emergency response teams will continue to be needed," Julian said. "When they open up, we will be able to see where the imbalance is [in aid and supplies]. While time is of the essence, volunteers need to think in terms of effectiveness accompanied by flexibility."

Many Southern Baptists already have offered their services. "We’re grateful for the interest of Southern Baptists who want to volunteer," said IMB state and association services director Terry Sharp.

Due to the extreme nature of this disaster, the first volunteer teams will be limited to trained disaster relief volunteers. They won’t have clean water to drink or even beds where they can rest. Those conditions -- along with the need to minister cross-culturally to those who have lost their families, friends and everything they own -- dictate that initial volunteer teams be limited to those trained to work in such situations.

After initial urgent needs are met, though, it’s likely that more volunteers will be needed, including individuals who haven’t been trained in disaster relief. Those interested in future volunteer opportunities should monitor http://imb.org/vim. Or go to http://subscribe.imb.org to subscribe to Your IMB, a regular e-mail newsletter that will include updates on volunteer needs.

The International Mission Board will send initial volunteer teams in cooperation with the North American Mission Board and state conventions. Trained disaster relief volunteers interested in serving should contact their state convention disaster relief offices. For contact information, visit http://www.namb.net/site/pp.asp?c=9qKILUOzEpH&b=238540.


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