Calming presence: There’s a ‘place for everyone’ in local, national disaster relief efforts

By Grace Thornton

The Alabama Baptist

Cookie Garner Baker says she could tell a tornado was coming. The sky looked strange as she helped an older lady get in her car and head home from her church in Manchester, Tennessee.

“I got in my car too and just as I made the turn at the end of the road behind the church the tornado came down the road I had just been on,” she said.

In seconds it destroyed lives without mercy, she said — it picked up a house, threw it into the backyard of the church and killed a 12-year-old boy in the process. 

“It was devastating,” Baker said.

But some people who were a “calming presence” showed up soon after — disaster relief chaplains.

“I can’t really recall anything specific they said or did, it was just the fact that they were there,” she said. “It was their presence that I remember more than anything else.”

That day in 2002 changed her. She had been through a crisis before — she and her husband were stranded in their flooded Mobile neighborhood for three days during Hurricane Camille in 1969.

God’s call

But no chaplains showed up when that happened, nor any other disaster relief help for that matter. And it felt different when they did in 2002.

“God started calling me to be that same sort of presence for other people in crisis,” she said. 

She trained as a chaplain in Tennessee, then eventually moved back home to Alabama and trained in a lot of other areas too. She’s served by assisting in team administration, manning shower trailers, serving food with a mass feeding unit and performing chaplaincy work.

“We get to be a presence, to be a shoulder to lean on,” she said. “A lot of times the people we meet are not Christians and we get to tell them that all this stuff is temporary — the hope we have in Jesus will never be taken away from us.”

Baker’s trip to Panama City earlier this year to participate in relief work after Hurricane Michael was her 50th trip since she first trained as a disaster relief chaplain.

Mark Wakefield, disaster relief strategist for the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, said the work of volunteers like Baker creates a massive impact.

Making a difference

“There’s an opportunity to make a difference on so many levels,” he said. “If someone comes to Christ through disaster relief work it is because of everybody from the admin to the local associational coordinators to the people who keep equipment up and running. 

“Some of them put in many, many hours. They are really behind the scenes and it just couldn’t get done without them.”

Baker said she’s enjoyed every role she’s tried, but as she’s gotten older administration has been an increasingly good fit.

“Sometimes people think they can’t do disaster relief work because they can’t pull brush or do cleanup work and I want them to know there’s still a place for them in disaster relief,” she said. “If you’ve got the heart, we’ve got a place for you.”

Now is the perfect time to get trained and prepared to help the next time disaster strikes nearby.Alabama Baptist disaster relief is offering trainings around the state in March and April. To find one near you, visit sbdr.org or call 800-264-1225, ext. 267.

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