Church rallies after hurricane to serve Fla. community

Eustolia Flores and her daughter, Jocelyn, stand in front of their home in Immokalee, Fla., that was completely flattened by Hurricane Irma. Flores, Jocelyn and her son, Andriz, were taken in by their next door neighbor Anita Martinez. Martinez’s home received damage as well, half of it is covered in tarps slung over gaps in the roof. Both families are living in the damaged home sleeping on sections of the floor that remain covered. Nobody in the neighborhood has power or running water.
Photo by Daniel Draddy.
IMMOKALEE, Fla. (BP) -- Inside a gym with yellow walls, 200 volunteers form an assembly line. These helpers from First Baptist Church of Immokalee, Fla., are bagging food and cleaning supplies in the church's gym because it's one of the few buildings left standing after Hurricane Irma reduced the already-impoverished area to even less.

"Our awesome volunteers are inside and outside the church manning all kinds of stations from bagging to distribution so that when people's cars pull up, they can get everything they need," said Jessica Pigg, wife of senior pastor Timothy Pigg. "They'll get a bag of groceries and canned goods, a bag of snacks, bananas and a hygiene kit with toiletries and other necessities."

It takes a group effort, but FBC Immokalee won't let that deter them.

"We've got football players helping us with water distribution and with carrying dog food and diapers to cars," Pigg said. "We've also got volunteers handing out tea and lemonade. You name it, we are going to have it."

From baby formula to food boxes and bags, the church's gym floor is covered in supplies donated to this hurricane-devastated community.

"When church ended Sunday afternoon [September 17], we received so many donations and boxes from all kinds of disaster relief organizations and churches," Pigg said. "We're going to keep giving until we're out of things to give, but hopefully every single day this week, Monday through Friday, we are going to have a distribution."

Alongside the Immokalee high school football players, students on cheerleading, power lifting and softball teams have continued to show up to help FBC Immokalee volunteers serve the diverse Immokalee community of 30,000.

A junior at Immokalee High School, Woodchy Darius, has to choose between accepting a job picking berries and going back to school when it reopens. He fears his family, Haitian migrants, won't be able to pay rent because Irma took away the ability for them to work.

"If I don't have the money, they'll kick us out," Darius told the Lufkin (Texas) Daily News.

According to the Census Bureau, those immigrants in Immokalee are among the impoverished 16 percent of the state's 20.6 million population. Day laborers and migrants in Immokalee who pick produce did not receive paychecks while Irma flooded their fields. Stores and restaurants closed during the storm with no hope of opening soon after damage assessment.

"My hope for First Baptist Immokalee is that Christ be exalted through preaching, teaching and serving ministries of the church," pastor Timothy Pigg said. "My focus is to equip those to do the work of ministry."

And service ministry is needed in Immokalee.

Mobile homes are no longer livable but for those with only $10 to their names, there's nowhere else to go. People are running out of gas and generators. Haitians, Guatemalans, Latin Americans and others that make up Immokalee's diverse community are trying to be strong for one another during their struggles.

For many Immokalee residents, not having to worry about where their next meal will come from is a blessing.

"We're all in recovery mode from hurricane Irma, and it can be overwhelming," Kerri Sisson, member of New Hope World Changer's relief operations in Fort Myers, said. "Most of us will be able to get back to normal. Unfortunately, that is not the reality for thousands of people in Immokalee who were hard hit by the storm and are struggling to get the most basic necessities."

New Hope World Changers put together a food drive and donations arrived at FBC Immokalee, Sept. 17, just in time for distribution.

"We are so thankful for all the helping hands that are faithfully serving us as we organize distributions this week," Pigg said. "We have over 200 volunteers at FBC Immokalee, and it's just Tuesday. We also want to thank disaster relief organizations like the North American Mission Board and Flourish Now, Hearts with Hands, New Hope World Changers and several others that are providing us with all these products to be passed out."

The North American Mission Board (NAMB)'s Send Relief teams and the Maryland Baptist Convention also sent volunteers to serve and to cook meals for FBC Immokalee volunteers.

"We have social media calls for volunteers, and in them we say volunteers will be fed when they serve with us from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m.," Pigg said. "We are so grateful for not just the supplies but for the help we've received from so many. Thank you!"

On Sept. 19, FBC Immokalee passed out more than 800 bags to hurricane survivors. And in an area where residents make half of what the average Floridian does, community support and donated items are the difference between survival and destitution.

"We saw thousands and thousands of families well up with gratitude at being able to get the supplies they need," Pigg said. "We covet everyone's prayers as we continue to serve the rest of the week. We are just so thankful for the prayers, donations and support."

Learn more about NAMB's hurricane relief efforts at sendrelief.net/sendhope.

Josie Bingham writes for the North American Mission Board.
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