Superstorm survivors recount service, life change from Southern Baptist Dsaster Relief
EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the second in a four-part series about the work of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers through their Sandy Rebuild initiative. The one-year anniversary of the superstorm's landfall is Oct. 29.
LONG ISLAND (BP) -- "They came to not only repair my house, but they looked after my soul," said Colleen Phillips, describing Southern Baptist Disaster Relief workers as "my silver lining in the storm."
Hurricane Sandy not only damaged Phillips' house but ended her marriage. She returned to the house months later and began repairs, gutting the mold-infested walls. An April storm brought panic when she and her daughter struggled to stop rainwater from pouring in through an opening on the side of the house.
Phillips made a call to a local Long Island volunteer agency but no one was available.
"Then Tom and Bill walked up," Phillips recounted.
"They were in their yellow hats and yellow shirts. I looked up and asked them, 'Can I help you?' Bill said, 'No, but I think we can help you.'"
"Bill" and "Tom" -- representing Southern Baptists' Sandy Rebuild initiative had taken the agency's referral, adding Phillips' home –- and life -- to the many residents assisted by Southern Baptist Disaster Relief after Sandy's landfall on Oct. 29, 2012.
Sandy Rebuild project coordinator Bill Johnson, from Grayson, Ky., and Tom Vannoy, Long Island coordinator from Wilkes County, N.C., soon were taping up the side of Phillips' house in the rain with garbage bags and duct tape she had been using. They returned the next day with a tarp and sealed the hole.
Since then many SBDR teams have come to help Phillips. They have redone the basement and first floor, hanging drywall, painting and even planting flowers outside. In September, a Sandy Rebuild team from Biltmore Baptist Church in Asheville, N.C., installed a new vinyl floor in the basement. The team served with SBDR volunteers from Kentucky, Illinois and South Carolina.
"Colleen was so excited that we were there and so appreciative," said Faye Alexander, a longtime missions volunteer with Biltmore Baptist. "Every morning she fixed us something different to eat," Alexander said, describing her outlook as an SBDR volunteer as helping to fix a house and a heart.
Phillips said teams prayed with her on every visit. Each group signs a Bible given by one of the first teams that served her.
"One group formed a huge prayer circle. It was fantastic. It was such a large circle even they were amazed at it," Phillips said. "They just sent me so many ministers along the way and they always made sure that I was OK."
SBDR volunteer Randy Corn, who serves as Sandy Rebuild's emotional and spiritual care coordinator for Long Island and Staten Island, visited with Phillips as part of the outreach to homeowners and neighbors where SBDR teams work.
Mickey Caison, NAMB disaster relief team leader and overall director for Sandy Rebuild, describing Corn's work, said, "While our volunteers and team members share the Gospel as they have opportunities, Randy does follow-up. He has time to be more deliberate in sharing the Gospel. In that process he's not only having that opportunity but he's seeing the fruit."
John McElroy, a homeowner in the Long Island coastal village of Freeport, said he was impressed with the SBDR teams who built wheelchair ramps for him and how they always took time to visit. Volunteers came from West Albemarle Baptist Church in North Carolina, First Baptist Church in Sommerset, Ky., Parkway Baptist in Bardstown, Ky., and First Baptist Church in Woodbridge, Va.
"They were so intent on listening to whatever I had to say," McElroy said.
Sandy's storm surge flooded McElroy's home and destroyed his wheelchair ramps. The former diesel mechanic had been an active surfer and scuba diver until he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1998. He and his wife Lynette have lived in Freeport for 15 years. The couple returned to their home 52 days after the storm struck.
The witness of a 14-year-old volunteer named Bradley from West Albemarle Baptist Church changed his life forever, McElroy said. While the two were cleaning a rope that hung on the ramp railing, Bradley stopped to compare the dirty rope to sin.
"When we are full of sin we are dirty like the rope. When we confess our sins we are clean again like this part [of the rope] that I just rinsed off," Bradley told him.
McElroy said he had been aware of Jesus his entire life and believed Jesus was always with him. "But that day between Bradley and the rope and giving a goodbye hug to the volunteers and driving out [to his temporary residence] -- once I turned the corner a couple of blocks up I had to pull over," McElroy recounted.
McElroy said he was overcome with joy. At that moment he understood what the month-long experience with the volunteers had been all about.
"The result of the Baptists being here -- building the ramp -- allowed my soul to just open up and let Jesus in," McElroy said. "I've been telling my story to whoever is willing to listen. That's my job now."