Presley Landrum offers cold water to Loving West volunteers. Her family home was destroyed in the April fertilizer plant explosion. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)
Presley Landrum offers cold water to Loving West volunteers. Her family home was destroyed in the April fertilizer plant explosion. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews)

In West, helpers become the helped

Accustomed to helping others, members of First Baptist Church and their neighbors in West, Texas, adjust to being the receivers of kindness.

By Jeff Brumley

It’s hard being helped when you’re used to being the helper. Just ask the folks at First Baptist Church in West, Texas.

Church member Presley Landrum, 16, said she and her youth group friends are accustomed to volunteering on mission trips and other ministry projects. But that changed on April 17 when the local fertilizer plant exploded, killing 15, injuring 200 and destroying around 150 homes – including Landrum’s.

Now she and most of the rest of the city have been the target of prayer vigils, fundraisers and volunteer campaigns.

“It’s weird,” Landrum said after a Monday night service at First Baptist. “It’s different because I’m used to going to other people’s homes and helping them.”

Wrestling with that acceptance has become even tougher this week with close to 600 volunteers descending on the small town for “Loving West,” a weeklong rebuilding project sponsored by the Baptist General Convention of Texas.

Since Saturday, participants have been everywhere in the city mowing lawns, clearing away rubble and searching debris for victims’ valuables.

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An event organizer told worshipers at First Baptist Monday night that 70 projects had been completed by 438 volunteers logging 65,000 work hours. And that was just by Monday night, said Marla Bearden, disaster-recovery specialist for the BGCT.

FBC West Associate Pastor Phil Immicke said one of the hardest things to accept was turning over the volunteer coordinator role he had instantly assumed after the explosion. That role is now being handled by the BGCT.

“That had been a way for me to cope” with the disaster, said Immicke, who also serves as a police officer in nearby Waco. West residents as a whole have been “overwhelmed by the help.”

Not that First Baptist and others in West are sitting idly by while volunteers do all the work. Since the night of the blast, the church has been a recovery operations center and has dedicated its own money and personnel to the demolition and rebuilding effort, said Pastor John Crowder.

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And its members are heavily involved in “Loving West,” working alongside volunteers from around the state, he said.

But Crowder said letting others in takes a lot of determination to accept help even though his home was destroyed in the blast and his parcel now contains only a slab.

“I’m trying to learn that’s how God works – through other people,” Crowder said.

But Landrum and her friends at First Baptist haven’t stopped much to dwell on those difficulties. They’ve spent most of Monday and Tuesday crisscrossing the streets of West delivering water and meals to the out-of-towners toiling in the Central Texas heat and humidity.

They’re also motivated by their experience the night of the explosion, when they were at church worshiping with other youth.

“The whole building shook and the lights went out,” said Madison Tyra, 16.

West2 010A few minutes later, Landrum got a call from her mother that their house had been destroyed.

“Seeing her (Landrum) cry and stuff, you could tell something really bad had happened,” Tyra said.

Landrum and her family have been living in two campers at a local camp ground ever since and likely won’t see a new house built until next year.

But she didn’t seem bothered by that as she and pals Shelby Wines, 16, and Allyson Hamilton, 12, delivered water Tuesday morning.

“We gave out 600 waters yesterday,” she said.

The task of visiting the ravaged neighborhoods is taking its toll, however.

“Who’s house is that?” Landrum said, pointing to a house pancaked in the blast.

“I don’t know,” Wines replied. “There’s too many.”