LONG ISLAND, N.Y. (BP) -- When a Southern Baptist Disaster Relief team arrived at Almarean and James Sweeney's home, the couple said it was an answer to prayer. Their home was flooded with 4 feet of saltwater, as were thousands of homes, when hit by Hurricane Sandy's storm surge a year ago today (Oct. 29, 2012). Many homes took on as much as 8 feet of water.
The Sweeneys, in their 80s, had begun repairs but the mold was not removed properly, so they had to start over. They were given a 10-day notice by city inspectors to leave their home of 24 years in Freeport, N.Y.
Almarean Sweeney prayed on Sunday at her church for help. On Monday, volunteers arrived as part of the Sandy Rebuild initiative of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief.
"I can't get over it. God just sent His angels here to help us," Almarean said.
The team tore out the basement flooring and sheetrock, sprayed for mold, hung sheetrock and even rebuilt a front step. During their four days of work at the Sweeneys' home, the volunteers prayed and fellowshipped with the couple.
A group of 18 volunteers from Meadow Heights Baptist Church in Collinsville, Ill., had divided into three crews, one deploying to the Sweeneys' home. They served in September along with SBDR volunteers from North Carolina, Kentucky and South Carolina working on Long Island as part of Sandy Rebuild.
Sandy Rebuild is a two-year partnership of the North American Mission Board and North Carolina Baptist Men in cooperation with the Baptist Convention of New York, Metro New York Baptist Association, New Jersey Net and local churches. The goal is to help restore communities not only physically but also spiritually, said Mickey Caison, NAMB SBDR recovery coordinator and overall director for Sandy Rebuild. The bulk of the work is on Long Island. Projects also are ongoing on Staten Island and in Allenwood, N.J.
Building relationships with the homeowners is a big part of disaster relief ministry, Caison said. The volume of work volunteers do in initial responses and later in rebuild, coupled with the way they serve, has given Southern Baptists credibility in the community, he said.
"One of the comments I keep hearing over and over here is, 'Your volunteers are so loving and kind,'" Caison said.
Volunteer leader Dan Moutria said he always emphasizes to SBDR teams that their most important job is to spend time with homeowners. Moutria, SBDR director for Region 4 of Illinois, was on his second Sandy-related trip with Meadow Heights.
"If someone wants to talk with you, I tell them, 'Put your hammer or your chain saw down and listen to them,'" Moutria said.
"New York was nothing like we thought it was going to be," said pastor Keith Abrams, who served with the SBDR team from Ewing (Ky.) Baptist Church. When they visited the city on their day off, people came up from everywhere on the streets to talk with them. "They saw our shirts," Abrams said, "and came up to shake our hands and to thank us for the work."
"Disaster relief volunteers and groups like World Changers have opened a lot of doors in these communities," Caison said. "New York is very relationally driven. The right person saying that you can trust them -- that they're good guys -- makes all the difference in the world up here.
"Our goal is to build a robust system of rebuild and recovery like we have with response," Caison said. "Historically, SBDR is good at response, with almost 90,000 trained volunteers and 1,600 mobile units, but usually we leave a community within a few weeks or months because the response is over. Recovery can take two to three years or longer."
An important part of SBDR structure is the emotional and spiritual care volunteers give, Caison said, adding that he has always carried a burden for following up more in the community and has a goal of planting 10 churches in Sandy-affected areas in New York and New Jersey. He is convinced that church plants will come out of the ministry and is encouraged by the coordination between SBDR and NAMB's mobilization staff to identify church planting opportunities within Sandy-affected areas.
Caison gets excited when he talks about the 800-plus collegiate volunteers who served during their winter and spring breaks, based in a tent city on Staten Island. SBDR plans a return of college students in December and again in the spring. Students interesting in volunteering with Sandy Rebuild can learn more at http://www.namb.net/Sandy.
"The community fell in love with them," he said. "They met needs with a team spirit and served happily while they worked hard in the heat and in the cold. They also interacted with homeowners."
Now, Caison said, "In the rebuild phase, we can use a different type of volunteer -- churches can plan ahead to send missions teams to work along with DR teams."
Fritz Wilson, NAMB's executive director for disaster relief, said the mission board is working toward a seamless connection between the work of SBDR and NAMB's Send North America strategy. New York is one of 32 urban areas targeted through Send North America's evangelistic church planting partnerships.
"We would like to complete the circle from taking disaster relief's work of leading people to Christ to seeing it through to church plants so they can become disciples," Wilson said.
Randy Corn, SBDR emotional and spiritual care coordinator for Long Island and Staten Island, has visited with scores of affected homeowners. He has also spent time with members of Calvary Protestant Evangelical Free Church and pastor Charlie Lucchesi. The church, in Baldwin, N.Y., is lodging SBDR volunteers. Corn has led evangelism training for the church.
Lucchesi said the disaster teams who have worked from the church since April have had a positive impact on the community and the congregation. Many homes in Baldwin, as in nearby Freeport, were damaged and still need repairs.
"Everybody is excited in this church to have them here," Lucchesi said. "They get into doors that we can never get into. When they come into the community, they just spread the love of Christ by serving people -- and it's changing their understanding of what a Bible-believing church is. The fruit from the work will be much longer than the time they are here, not necessarily for this church but for the church of Jesus Christ."
Volunteer Jim Ramey with a DR feeding team from South Carolina said many people are afraid of taking that first step to serve. "When you do step out and help someone, especially when you help lead someone to Christ, there is no bigger reward."
Southern Baptist volunteers, numbering more than 10,650 who have responded since Hurricane Sandy's onslaught, have served 1.85 million meals, completed 2,678 jobs, shared the Gospel 878 times and witnessed 116 professions of faith since the superstorm's landfall on Oct. 29 of last year. 2012. To volunteer for or learn more about Sandy Rebuild visit http://www.namb.net/Sandy. To view a related video, visit http://www.namb.net and click on the Spotlight viewer.
Laura Sikes writes for the North American Mission Board. Get Baptist Press headlines and breaking news on Twitter (@BaptistPress), Facebook (Facebook.com/BaptistPress) and in your email (baptistpress.com/SubscribeBP.asp).
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