By John Hall and Jeff Brumley
Its church building still in lockdown four days after a fertilizer plant explosion killed 14 people and injured 200 others, members of First Baptist Church in West, Texas, gathered in a makeshift altar in a field for worship April 21.
Pastor John Crowder encouraged worshippers to lean on God during trying times, preaching from Psalm 46, which begins, “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.”
“We have more questions than answers,” Crowder said in an emotional message. “We have lost so many of our friends and neighbors…. As scary as this has been, we don’t have to be afraid.”
First Baptist Church is in the part of town that is locked down since the April 17 blast that left a deep crater and threw shrapnel across several blocks. A notice on the church website says the building was damaged but can be repaired. Despite that, church leaders said they are committed to finding a way to be together every Sunday. “We are a family and families need to be together now more than ever,” the website said.
The church says it has been overwhelmed by offers to help. Church leaders expressed gratitude to the Baptist General Convention of Texas, the Waco Baptist Regional Association and Texas Baptist Men for an outpouring of support.
“First Baptist Church in West will be a major force in the rebuilding of that community,” said Chris Liebrum, who leads Texas Baptists’ disaster recovery. “Texas Baptists will stand with them and provide the resources needed so that in Christ’s name they can bring hope to so many who have lost family, friends and possessions.”
Stephanie Midkiff, the spokeswoman for Texas Baptist Men, said last week that Baptist agencies were converging on the city and making plans to coordinate recovery efforts once authorities open the most devastated part of the town to residents and aid workers.
Tommy Deal, disaster-response coordinator for the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship, said he’s in constant contact with CBF Texas Field Coordinator Rick McClatchey to help plan their response. As of Thursday, Deal said in an e-mail, there had been no request to CBF for supplies or personnel. Any assistance requested will be provided, he added.
Numerous Texas Baptist Men volunteers were present during the worship service. The organization has a laundry and a shower unit in the area. A child care unit is in operation and a TBM box unit distributed more than 1,500 boxes to residents as they returned to see their damaged homes for the first time. TBM chaplains also are on location.
Individual congregations and ministries began taking their own actions to help immediately after the explosion.
Baptist and other churches in the surrounding Central Texas region opened their buildings as shelters and prayer centers for West refugees. Baylor University students held a prayer vigil the night of the blast, and the secretary of a local church said apartment complexes and hotels were providing rooms to those left homeless by the incident.
Congregations in Waco, some 20 miles to the south, are also kicking into gear. Among them are Seventh and James Baptist and First Baptist They are coordinating a collection of cleaning supplies and equipment to send to West on Monday, Seventh and James Pastor Erin Blake Conaway said in an e-mail to members.
“Our Missions Council is exploring other options of response further down the road when the path of help becomes more clear,” Conaway said.
One item West residents don’t need is more donations of food, Midkiff said. “The mayor has actually said they don’t need more supplies in that way,” she said. What they do is financial contributions to help in the rebuilding process.
Deal joined church and government officials in calling for prayer as the situation in West becomes clearer. “Pray first for the responders,” he said, and for “those whose loved ones have died” and for those pastors and ministers helping them.