Back in 2004 when Hurricane Ivan was barreling down on the Gulf Coast, Allen Stephenson was caught off guard by an unexpected force.
And it wasn’t the storm.
It was the way a group of people in his rural area came together across denominational and racial lines to take care of people who showed up at their highway exit off I-65.
They “became a force in the county,” said Stephenson, pastor of First Baptist Church, Georgiana.
And the group got its footing when people who were fleeing Ivan filled up all eight hotels in the Greenville area.
“Many of them came with no money in their pockets and all their possessions in their car,” Stephenson remembered. “We realized there was a need there, so we began to help by taking food to the hotels and feeding the people.”
Somehow CNN heard about the effort, and after they ran a story, enough donations came in to give the newly formed ministerial association some seed money to keep helping people.
And as generous donations have continued to come in, that ministry has extended well beyond hurricane evacuations.
“Sometimes a mother fleeing a bad situation will turn up at our exit, or a family who has come to town and their car breaks down and they don’t have any money until the next day when they can get it wired,” Stephenson explained.
The group works with police and a local hotel to identify and screen needs, then helps people get a meal, a room for the night or anything else they might require.
And First Baptist Church, Greenville — part of the ministerial association — serves as an Emergency Management Agency shelter when called upon. That can include hosting the Red Cross or setting up cots with blankets for anyone who needs them.
Sometimes that’s during a storm or natural disaster, or in unusual cases like the multi-car accident on I-65 near their exit in June, said Kelly Trawick, secretary at First, Greenville.
“There were several families displaced for the day because of that, and we had just finished VBS and had them come to the church,” she said. “Some were waiting for family members, or for transportation or hotel rooms to become available.”
State troopers also used the church as a place to interview victims about the accident, Trawick said.
Danny Dean, director of missions for Butler Baptist Association, said the association tries to always be alert to needs and find ways to meet them. Being right on the Interstate on a stretch of road with no other major exits for miles provides “a big opportunity” for ministry, he said.
Stephenson put it this way: “God is good, and He is giving us opportunities, and we are trying to take those into account.”