SNOWFLAKE, Ariz. — As the largest fire in Arizona history
rages in the eastern part of the state, Southern Baptists have responded with
compassion in Jesus’ name.
The Wallow Fire has burned more than 730 square miles, destroyed 31 homes and
cost around $25 million to fight, MSNBC reported. It has also forced the
evacuation of multiple towns, prompting churches, associations and the Arizona
Southern Baptist Convention to launch ministry efforts for victims.
The Arizona Southern Baptist Convention deployed a shower unit to Lakeside June
8 and had kitchen crews on standby, Larry Hyde, Arizona disaster relief state
coordinator, told Baptist Press (BP).
The shower unit was stationed at a shelter to support the approximately 130
evacuees staying there, Hyde said.
“Our shower trailer units … provide the shower services that a lot of the
shelter areas lack,” Hyde said. “This gives us excellent opportunities to put
our disaster relief, our Southern Baptist people in personal contact with the
disaster victims and gives us many good opportunities to be able to minister
and share Jesus with the displaced people.”
One beneficiary of the shower unit was Franz Tomlinson, pastor of First Baptist
Church in Alpine. Tomlinson and his wife Yvonne were forced to evacuate Alpine
June 2. He told BP that the church building was not in danger and that only one
or two structures in Alpine had burned. But the fire did put the congregation’s
VBS, scheduled to begin July 11, in jeopardy, Tomlinson said.
The fire also inspired Tomlinson to consider becoming involved in disaster
relief because of how grateful he was for the shower unit, where he also did
“We have not been involved in (disaster relief) before, but I am hoping to lead
our church to get involved in it when we get back to Alpine,” Tomlinson said.
One association in eastern Arizona used the fire as an opportunity to establish
an emergency relief fund.
“We have set up a fund to assist folks who have been evacuated,” said Jim
Pratt, director of evangelism and missions at the Desert Pines Baptist
Association in Snowflake.
The association received one gift of $2,000 to begin the fund and had
commitments for another $1,500 to $1,800, Pratt told BP. Pastors and disaster
relief workers disburse money from the fund in the form of $25 pre-paid Visa
cards as they encounter needs, up to a maximum of $100 per family.
The fund has provided numerous opportunities to minister in Christ’s name,
including to Mormons, Pratt said.
Assistance will be distributed to residents in the cities of Alpine,
Springerville and Eager — all of which have a Southern Baptist church — and
Greer, where resort ministry is conducted between June and September.
Among the most remarkable ministry efforts in the association occurred at the
home of Larry Hamblen, pastor of Jesus First Church in Eager.
Though Eager was evacuated, Hamblen lives 34 miles from the church near Show
Low. So when his church members left their homes in Eager, he hosted or found
housing in his neighborhood for nearly 30 of them.
That included people living in his house, in tents on his lawn, in trailers on
his property and at three neighbors’ houses. The evacuees ate meals together
and enjoyed Christian fellowship, Hamblen said in an interview.
“Our former pastor’s wife had to evacuate,” Hamblen told BP. “She was having a
hard time. Last night we sang all of her favorite and our favorite Southern gospel
songs around the piano. And it was great therapy for her.”
Regarding the evacuees’ daily routine, Hamblen said, “We sit around and we
talk. We have prayer meetings.”
Jesus First Church’s story was featured by both FOX News and the Associated
Press, the pastor said. He added that none of his church members’ houses had
been burned, despite the fire threatening at least nine.
“The fire fighters and God saved them,” Hamblen said.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Roach is a writer and pastor in Shelbyville, Ky.)