NASHVILLE, Tenn. — On this
day, the lunch menu would consist of pork chops and mashed potatoes, and — over
the course of the next 10 hours — some 10,000 meals would be cooked for Middle
Tennessee flood victims.
Welcome to the world of Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, where meals are
cooked by the oodles and a day with 10,000 meals is considered, well, normal.
It’s also far from the record, which was set back in 2008, when 150,000 meals
in one day were prepared for victims of Hurricane Ike.
The 30-plus “feeding unit” volunteers who were set up in the parking lot of
Nashville’s Judson Baptist Church May 12 were just a handful of the 88,000-plus
Southern Baptists who are trained for disaster relief, ready to head to any
disaster location at a moment’s notice.
“Once you start, you love to do it,” Charlie Sherwood, a member of Second
Baptist Church in Clinton, Tenn., told Baptist Press. “I hate for a disaster to
happen, but it’s a joy to go out and help people.”
But Southern Baptist DR volunteers don’t just prepare meals. Among other
things, they remove downed trees, clean out and help rebuild flooded homes,
provide portable hot showers and, of course, minister in the name of Christ to
people who often have lost everything. The volunteers make up one of the nation’s
three largest disaster relief efforts, the other two being the Red Cross and
It’s tough work, yes, but — they’ll tell you — worth it.
Sherwood, 76, should know. He went out initially in 1980 and increased his
frequency of participation with each decade. He estimates he’s participated at
least 50-75 times during those 30 years, volunteering about three times each
year in recent years. But, honestly, he’s lost count.
“Some people can’t understand why we do it,” he said. “We tell them that we
love them and the Lord loves them.”
Over the years Sherwood has helped victims of tornadoes, hurricanes, ice storms
and floods. He also travelled to New York City in the days after the terrorist
attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
In Nashville, Sherwood and the rest of the feeding unit crew woke up around 5
a.m. each day to begin assisting the Nashville area, which saw thousands of
homes flooded May 1-2 and experienced at least $1.5 billion in flood damage in
the city alone. The early rise was necessary because the first batch of lunch
meals had to be ready by 8:30 in order to be delivered by 10:30 to locations
two hours way.
The unit — owned by the Tennessee Baptist Convention — ran like clockwork, with
volunteers wearing color-coded hats, depending on their task. Those in white
and blue caps were the leaders, while those in yellow caps — the predominant
color — were the workers.
The food is cooked in huge restaurant-sized tilt skillets and ovens and then
poured into red Cambro food storage containers, resembling red Igloo ice
coolers. There’s also a dessert, which usually consists of something easy to
prepare, such as canned peaches.
Red Cross volunteers pick up the Cambros and
then take them to shelters and communities where they pour the food into
Styrofoam clamshell containers similar to restaurant takeout boxes. Each meal
also contains a roll or other type of bread.
Southern Baptist feeding units often work in partnership with the Red Cross,
and the food must be warm enough so that it’s 140 degrees when it’s served.
Once lunch is cooked, the volunteers find time to grab a bite to eat and then
begin cooking a different menu for supper. On this day, it was chicken and
dumplings and peas.
Occasionally the units set up feeding lines on-site, where disaster victims
stand in line to get a meal. The Nashville feeding unit did not have a feeding
line, but the lines can be eye-opening experiences.
“We had people in 2008 in Texas who drove 30 miles to pick up plates because
there was no electricity,” said Phyllis Griffith, a member of Pleasant Grove
Baptist Church in Mountain City, Tenn. “We’d hand them the plate, and lot of
them would say, ‘We just appreciate y’all so much. We haven’t had a hot meal in
forever.’ It’s really heartbreaking to think that if we weren’t there, they
wouldn’t have it.”
The Nashville flood was the third time Griffith had been out on disaster
“It’s very rewarding,” she said. “After one time, you’re hooked.”
Each Southern Baptist volunteer must first go through disaster relief training,
which takes place in locations close to home and lasts about a day and a half.
Sam McClanahan, a member of Vonore (Tenn.) Baptist Church, began working on
disaster relief units about eight years ago after he retired. A blue cap
leader, he said he’s done a “bit of everything” over the years. His wife Nancy
also is a DR worker.
“Retirees are the only ones that can easily drop what they’re doing and go,”
McClanahan said. “When I hear of a hurricane coming, I’m starting to arrange
things around the house, whether it’s mowing my yard — whatever I need to do.
When I’m called, I can say, ‘I’m sitting here waiting for you.’ Nancy and I
both, we don’t even ask each other. We just start arranging things.”
Getting involved in feeding units is an adventure, McClanahan said, and the
volunteers often reward themselves late in the day by cooking something
different, just for themselves.
“After these people have been standing here
stirring beef stew for four or five hours, they don’t want that to eat it at
night,” McClanahan said, smiling. “We normally go in a fix us something a
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Foust is an assistant editor of Baptist Press.)