(ABP) — Tsunami disaster relief is not a race between the tortoise and the hare. It's more like a relay effort by the two.
According to Baptist groups that remain deeply involved in helping victims of the catastrophe, the sprint to keep people alive by providing them emergency food and shelter has given way to the marathon of restoring the communities and hope wiped away by the wall of water Dec. 26.
“This looks like it will be a long term project, possibly lasting several years,” said Gary Smith, director of Texas Baptist Men, which has had teams in Sri Lanka since early January. “Our first crews concentrated on feeding and water purification. But now we are shifting to home construction and even building schools and other permanent structures. I think we will be rotating volunteers in and out of Sri Lanka into 2006, if not beyond.”
Karolyn Southerland of Alice, Texas, recently went to Sri Lanka as a volunteer to feed tsunami victims. She ended up cleaning wells contaminated by sea water. Nonetheless, she is anxious to go back. “I want to see if I can do more than I did the first time,” she said. “I don't think a feeding unit will go, but maybe I can help build a house. Maybe I can help feed children. I'd go back in a minute.”
Every person who serves in Sri Lanka makes a difference, said Southerland, who went as a part of a Texas Baptist Men group. “Those children won't forget we were there,” she said. “The parents of the children won't forget we were there.”
“There's so much work that still needs to be done there,” she said. “Where the tsunami hit, the homes were shattered. We're needed there to share, to care. It doesn't matter if it's a few months later.”
Some Sri Lankan families still rely on emergency food provided by Baptist aid workers, according to Paul Montacute, director of the Baptist World Aid, the hunger and relief arm of the Baptist World Alliance. Returning recently from the island nation off the southern coast of India, Montacute confirmed the need for more permanent housing for tsunami victims. The emergency tents provided for so many are proving to be too hot for the climate, he said, and people need to move into wood or block accommodations.
Sri Lankan Baptists are planning to build temporary houses for about $300 each. Montacute pledged $60,000 to build 200. Hungarian Baptist Aid also is rebuilding homes, with the help of a $40,000 grant from BWA.
A tsunami-aid summit of relief groups and indigenous Baptists is scheduled for Bangkok in May, Montecute said, organized by Baptist World Aid and the Asian Baptist Fellowship, the BWA-related organization of
4.7 million indigenous Baptists in 55 Baptist bodies in Asia. “By working together, Baptists are able to achieve so much more”, said Montacute. “We are all trying to support the work of our indigenous Baptist groups in the affected areas.”
The challenge for many aid groups — Baptist and otherwise — is to make the appropriate use of personnel while practicing the best stewardship of an unprecedented outpouring of contributions.
The International Mission Board of the Southern Baptist Convention reports tsunami-relief donations have passed $10 million. The Baptist World Alliance has received $1.5 million and the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship $1 million. Some individual state Baptist conventions also have their tsunami-relief programs. The Baptist General Convention of Texas has received in excess of $800,000.
The task is overwhelming. The scope of the devastation stretches from Indonesia to the east African coast, with dead and missing numbering almost 300,000. Most of the money contributed to Baptist relief groups has yet to be disbursed, but eventually the funds will play out — likely before all the needs have been met, leaders say.
The money is both “a blessing and a responsibility to ensure that it is well used,” said Montacute. He said he hopes Baptists will resist “letting the media set our agenda” and won't forget the tsunami victims when they fall out of the headlines. “We need to get Baptists to see that needs exist throughout the years — seven days a week, 24 hours a day — and not just when something appears on television.”
So far Baptist generosity has been unprecedented. The Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, which has sent at least 12 teams to work with the SBC, CBF, BWA and other Christian aid groups, surveyed its church members and found 69 percent of poll participants had made financial contributions to tsunami relief.
But relief workers will need patience to match the generosity. While some Christian groups have grabbed headlines with over-aggressive evangelism techniques, most Christian groups agree now is a time to build relationships, not churches.
In many Asian countries, including Sri Lanka, Christians live and work in a cultural mix that includes centuries-old expressions of all other major world religions. There is widespread suspicion among those majority religions that Christian groups are only using tsunami aid as cover to “steal” needy individuals from their traditional faiths in exchange for houses, jobs and food.
“It is hard because many of us didn't have experience in countries that aren't open to the normal ways of sharing our faith,” said Kevin Dinnin, president of Baptist Child and Family Services. “When our assessment team was in Sri Lanka in January, I did what I always do and asked if I could pray for every [refugee] camp we went into. But one of the camps was Muslim and I didn't know that. When I bowed my head, the leader of the camp got very upset and chased all the children away from us. It took awhile but I finally convinced him that I was not trying to steal the children but sincerely wanted to ask God's grace and care for them.”
In such a situation, Dinnin said, the Apostle Paul's advice that “we be ‘all things to all men that some might be saved' takes on new meaning. And we find out sometimes it's harder to ‘testify' to our faith in a living Lord by being kind and loving and forgiving when you can smell death all around you, when you are sleep deprived, and when it seems like all the mosquitoes in the world are feasting on you, than it is to pull out a New Testament and share scriptures.”
It's a good thing he feels that way because BCFS, which is affiliated with the Baptist General Convention of Texas, has accepted what may the longest of the long-term projects involving Baptists — partnering with the Sri Lankan government to organize and administer the country's first foster-care program.
“We have been asked by national and regional government leaders to set up a pilot program, initially involving approximately 50 children, as well as train Sri Lankan government staff in how to do child-care and even fund a government employee who will be the liaison between our work and the government,” said David Beckett, Sri Lanka director of BCFS's overseas arm. “The government leaders see the need but have such limited resources. I admire their wisdom and their courage in asking us to help them in this area.”
Baptist Child and Family Services has employed a Sri Lankan native who has a graduate degree in counseling to help draft the procedures for the program, which is expected to get underway next month.
“The initial estimates of 10,000 orphans proved to be extremely overstated,” Beckett said. “And some non-Christian aid groups are resisting our program because they say all the orphans have been placed in homes. But you often have a grandparent or a single mom already living near the poverty level trying to find the energy and resources to care for children they suddenly are responsible for. And there is no system to support them-or to protect the children-in place. The government wants to do the right thing and we want to help.”
That sentiment is found among Baptist volunteers all across the tsunami area, whether they are doing medical exams, cleaning out wells, or helping fishermen acquire new boats.
The tortoises and the hares are working together.
— John Hall contributed to this story.