Matt Dunavant, pastor of Wynne Baptist Church, was 10 miles outside of town when the tornado carved up his beloved community on Friday, March 31, as part of a system that ravaged much of the South and touched parts of the Midwest.
“I could see the tornado going through Wynne from my driveway. Immediately after the storm, we drove into town,” Dunavant said. “My son was actually in the house that lead meteorologists … told us was where the eye of the storm hit.”
Traversing the 10 miles across the storm-wrecked terrain to get into Wynne required three hours, and after Dunavant made it to his son’s house, he started going house-to-house to find church members. As they got their bearings, they went first to check on the homes of the widows in their congregation.
“Three widows’ houses were completely destroyed, so we had to get to them to make sure they were alive. They all lived,” said Dunavant. “One of them probably wouldn’t have, but she was in the bathtub, the only place in her house where she could have survived.”
Randy Garrett, disaster relief director for Arkansas Baptists, returned from Rolling Fork, Miss., to lead the Arkansas Southern Baptist Disaster Relief as the storm bore down on his home state.
“We know people are hurting. We’re here to bring help, healing and hope to those in need,” Garrett said. “We are praying for them and asking for patience as we meet the needs as soon as possible.”
David Porter, an SBDR volunteer in the Little Rock area, was visiting his mother when the storm rolled in. He left, got on the interstate and saw the cloud going over the interstate.
“By the time I got up to the Rodney Parham exit, there were cars turned over on their tops and trees down everywhere. The traffic was at a standstill because the power was out to the traffic lights,” Porter said. “So I just parked my car, and I had work gloves with me and a poncho. Then I got out and started pulling debris off the road and helping locate injured people.”
Later, he went home, got his jeans, work boots, a chainsaw and his SBDR credentials and started helping to clear streets.
In Wynne, a local association of churches began sending out their SBDR units and volunteers. A group of trained SBDR volunteers from the neighboring community organized and came to help.
“We sure are glad and proud to be Southern Baptists when we see this [response] going,” said Clint Haynes, moderator of the Tri County Baptist Association. “We’re just praying that we see the kingdom advance through this. We know that Romans 8:28 applies to this [tragedy] as well.”
Within 24 hours of the tornado touching down, Send Relief, the global Southern Baptist compassion ministry arm, sent emergency meals, temporary roofing and construction materials to support the SBDR response in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Wynne and Jacksonville.
Tyler Hoffpauir, a Baptist Collegiate Ministry campus minister at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, arrived in Wynne – his hometown – on Monday, April 3, to check on his parents and scout out ways to bring college students to join the recovery efforts.
He walked into a gym at Wynne Baptist Church to connect with the SBDR incident command – the gym where he gave his life to Christ playing in an Upward basketball league.
“I’m looking at students out here helping who are (cleaning) up the playgrounds that I used to play on and looking at the damage to the high school auditorium where I used to have student assemblies. Major life events happened there for me,” Hoffpauir said. “There’s so much history wrapped up in it. So, it’s really hard to see that. … Now I’m trying to focus on how do we help a lot of people, a whole community.”
For the SBDR volunteers in Wynne and the members of Wynne Baptist, efforts to serve one another and minister to the community began immediately despite the trauma of enduring the devastation.
They started getting trees off roofs and tarps on houses that will help prevent further rain damage to the homes. Together, they continue ministering to people and sharing the hope of the gospel.
Similar efforts have continued across the nation as recent strings of storms have brought significant damage, not only in Arkansas and Mississippi but in Alabama, Delaware, Illinois, Indiana and Tennessee.
“One of the beauties of Southern Baptist disaster relief network is the relationship we have between the states, where, if one of us is running short of manpower or resources, we have the ability to call on other states — our brothers and sisters in the ministry — and they’re there,” said Hubert Yates, SBDR director for Mississippi Baptists, while Mississippi and Arkansas Baptists responded to the March 24 storms that hit his state.
“It’s probably the greatest example, outside of the money and the missions, that we can look at and say that is the Cooperative Program in operation,” Yates said. “We share together the different resources we have to accomplish the task of sharing the gospel.”
The group of yellow-shirted volunteers who participated in Sunday’s service at Wynne Baptist Church on April 1 received the largest ovation Pastor Dunavant had ever heard given during his time at the church – an ovation Southern Baptists around the nation give for their tireless volunteers.
To give to Send Relief crisis response efforts, visit sendrelief.org, or you can choose to give directly to a specific state’s disaster relief efforts.
— Brandon Elrod writes for the North American Mission Board.