By Jeff Brumley
If faith has led hundreds of volunteers from around the state to descend on West, Texas, for 13-year-old Emily Dodson it was that and something more personal.
“I know people who lost friends, dads,” said Dodson, a member of Seventh and James Baptist Church in Waco, located roughly 20 miles from the town partially flattened in an April fertilizer-plant explosion that killed 15 and injured 200.
Dodson and nearly 30 other members of her congregation are among nearly 600 who have registered for “Loving West,” a weeklong recovery project organized by Baptist General Convention of Texas disaster recovery.
Dodson said the proximity to her own community helped motivate her to join fellow church members in sifting through debris from a demolished apartment building located next to the plant. “I can’t believe the (destroyed) houses, and I can’t believe it’s actually that close to home,” she said during a lunch break on Monday.
The Seventh and James crew was joined by several members from other moderate Waco Baptist congregations, including Calvary, Lakeshore and Columbus Avenue.
But Baptists weren’t the only ones who came to help. Vans from Church of Christ and Methodist churches were seen parked near First Baptist Church in West, the hub of the recovery activity.
“It’s really just the faith-based family that’s turning out here this week,” said Marla Bearden, disaster-recovery coordinator with the BGCT.
Organizers said the timing of the project is a morale booster for West residents, who just learned the Federal Emergency Management Agency has ruled the city ineligible for additional recovery funds.
“No matter what FEMA does, this town will rebuild, said Phil Immicke, a Waco police officer and associate pastor at First Baptist.
Immicke made his comments to volunteers who gathered in the sanctuary Monday morning for orientation.
He warned them to prepare themselves to see scenes of devastation reminiscent of war zones. He said the explosion was equivalent to one caused by 1,800 pounds of TNT, demolishing a school and homes for blocks around the plant.
Immicke then reminded the volunteers to have compassion for the residents who lost their homes. “Each lot represents a life destroyed, so get past that initial shock and start praying for these people,” he said.
The work being done – mostly removing debris left over from home demolitions – would save each homeowner $15,000 to $20,000 and give them a glimmer of emotional and financial hope.
“You’re the hands and feet of God,” Immicke said. “That’s why you’re going to be picking up trash and mowing lawns.”
Most of the volunteers from Seventh and James, Calvary, Columbus Avenue and Lakeshore Baptist churches were tasked with another roughly 100 participants to sift through a massive pile of debris where an apartment complex once stood. Their goal was to move the pile closer to the street, and in the process search for valuables, mementos and heirlooms left behind.
They worked for some seven hours today with shovels, wheelbarrows and their hands to move a giant pile of debris from one spot to another. At first they worked in rain, and then in the heat and steamy humidity that followed.
Neither the weather nor the difficulty of the task was daunting to volunteers accustomed to annual mission trips, domestic and foreign, with much greater challenges. Instead, they noted that the feeling of this mission project was different from others they have experienced.
Calvary Baptist member Lynn Williams said she wanted to volunteer in West to repay Texas Baptists for helping her relatives who survived the 2011 Joplin tornado. “Sometimes you have to do missions at home, too,” she added.
It also adds a special feeling to help victims of an event that got so much attention, said Caleb Cruseturner, 14, of Seventh and James. “Having heard about this, it feels really good to help,” he said. “Having it so close to home also makes a difference.”
Being able to make that difference seems to have been destined for Seventh and James, said Pastor Erin Conaway, who spent much of Monday on a mowing team roaming blast-damaged streets of West. The church had planned to conduct an all-ages mission trip in another Texas city this week, but those plans fell through.
“This just seems what we’re supposed to do,” Conaway said.
Seventh and James’ plan this week is to work just under 1,000 hours of service, which will help West with grants and aid from different organizations, said Matt Rosencrans, minister to students.
During the team’s early morning at the church before leaving for West, Rosencrans urged participants to remember they will be working in other people’s neighborhoods.
“Pay attention to the surroundings,” he said. “We need to ask ourselves, ‘wow, what if this was our community?’”
Youth Minister Kent McKeever predicted the group wouldn’t have any problems heeding Ronsencrans’ advice.
“Most everyone knows someone – or knows someone who knows someone” who lost a home or loved one in the April blast, he said. “It’s personal.”