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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- While Southern Baptists are set to address sexual abuse in the church at this week's convention, Baptists with the denomination's disaster-relief agency in the state continue to provide physical and spiritual aid to those affected by flooding from the Arkansas River.

The Arkansas Baptist State Convention's disaster-relief agency provides five or six opportunities each year for people to train and become credentialed in providing help after natural disasters, but it has held several emergency training sessions this month to prepare new volunteers to help out with the effort. Before the training, the agency numbered 2,500 people working in 57 units, including those trained in handling chain saws or providing food or laundry service. A chaplain usually accompanies teams in their efforts to serve both disaster survivors and Christ.

Randy Garrett, director of Arkansas Baptist State Convention Disaster Relief, said more than 150 people turned out for training in Conway on June 1, and a crowd of 575 gathered for training in Fort Smith on June 2.

"We were at Grand Avenue Baptist Church, and they just kept coming in," said Garrett of the training in Fort Smith.

That crowd learned how to help with flood recovery referred to by some as mud-outs because it includes carrying out water-damaged furniture and possessions from residents' homes, removing affected drywall and tackling black mold.

The agency is the only place where some residents can find aid after a disaster event, said Garrett.

Steve Thomas of Little Rock served for five seven-day weeks in Houston after Hurricane Harvey struck in 2017, and in response to the recent flooding he will be leading what the denomination calls incident command -- the team responsible for managing the response efforts. For Thomas, the state convention's presence at the national gathering helps ensure the team has enough funding. Contributions also come from the state's Dixie Jackson Arkansas Missions Offering, the national Cooperative Program, and individual donations.

"It's an opportunity to serve, an opportunity to be a witness and be able to present the gospel, and just help people who are suffering, and maybe relieve their physical suffering at the same time," said Thomas. "I really enjoy it."

Southern Baptists first established relief efforts after the Texas Baptist Men organization rallied to respond to Hurricane Beulah in 1967, according to a resolution passed last year celebrating the agency's 50th anniversary. The denomination considers its disaster-relief arm as a ministry of the church. It's been recognized as the third-largest relief organization in the U.S., and has been described as "represent[ing] the best of Southern Baptist cooperation and partnership in times of crisis and disaster, focusing on the local church and highlighting compassion and changed lives."

Arkansas Baptist leaders have emphasized that the focus for the state is on its national and international missions efforts when at the national convention's annual gatherings, and the Southern Baptist disaster-relief agencies present in more than 40 states are affiliated with the national convention's North American Mission Board. Garrett was scheduled to present a display with other national disaster-relief committee members at the convention in Birmingham this week but remained in Arkansas to oversee the state agency.

Harold Johnson, director of the 150-member Red River Baptist Association's disaster-relief team, said on Sunday that the issues of sexual abuse and women's roles in the church visible at the national convention are "not much of a topic of discussion," but he noted that women and men of the church serve in disaster relief nationally, although that wasn't always the case. Johnson said that because the organization arose from a men-only group, women were not initially included.

"Once we got started we realized we needed the ladies in this, they trained and they responded," said Johnson. "We usually have more women than men in disaster relief, so [gender roles in disaster relief has] really not been an issue."

Jack Chandler, a team leader for the state convention's largest feeding unit, described the denomination as "conservative" overall, and guided by biblical principles.

"[Southern Baptists] believe in the Bible as it was written, and you must adhere to that -- and whatever your issue is, the Bible will tell you what's right and what's wrong," Chandler said. "We've got so many issues now, that it's just the opposite of what the Lord says."

Chandler's team is capable of providing 25,000-30,000 meals a day -- "Katrina-like proportions," he said of the number -- and among the recent efforts he led was a group of eight to 10 volunteers who made meals for 50 inmates working to fill sandbags two weeks ago.

Garrett said that in the midst of disaster relief there are also professions of faith; among the largest number to come into the fold recently were 73 people the agency was assisting in Nebraska. Between the outpouring of willingness from volunteers to step up and help with the recent flood recovery efforts, and the effectiveness he's seen in evangelizing through the agency, Garrett said he has been "amazed and humbled."

"I don't think it's just Southern Baptists, I think it's just Americans, Arkansans," said Garrett of the drive to help others. "[I say] when people are born in Arkansas, they're born with two things: a pickup truck and a chain saw -- especially church people.

"I don't know how to explain it, but they go out here, and we don't pay them anything ... but they do this just on the account of their hearts. They step up time and time again."

Metro on 06/10/2019

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