East Texas church feeds thousands after Onalaska tornado; SBTC DR crews on site

May 1st, 2020 / By: Jane Rodgers | TEXAN Correspondent / comments

POLK COUNTY, Texas   Jonathan Davidson, pastor of Trinity Pines Baptist Church in Trinity, and youth leader Brad Johnson were preparing to livestream the church’s Wednesday Bible study and youth program when the storm hit on the evening of April 22. They were forced to abandon their plans as winds kicked up, golf ball and baseball-sized hail pelted the building, electricity and internet failed. 

The EF-3 tornado that ripped through Polk County missed Trinity but tore through nearby Onalaska, claiming three lives, destroying 173 homes and damaging more than 300 others in the county.

After the storm, Davidson returned to his ranch home 38 miles away.

“We started calling folks to ascertain needs,” Davidson told the TEXAN. None of the church’s families were in the tornado’s immediate path, although many suffered wind damage to roofs and homes.

The next morning, Davidson and his brother, B.J., a worship leader at Antioch Baptist in Lovelady, viewed the damage first hand while transporting a generator to a member who lived near Onalaska.

“It was pretty devastating,” Davidson recalled. 

When church secretary Sheri Whitfield informed them that city officials had called for cooking teams to prepare food for the community, the Davidson brothers returned to the ranch to haul the family’s huge barbeque trailer to Onalaska’s Garland Park while Whitfield and ministry assistant Darlene Kasper rushed to the grocery store to purchase food and supplies.

As Davidson pulled the BBQ unit into the park, police officers stopped him and asked what he was doing.

“I’m a pastor. I heard you needed cookers,” Davidson replied. 

The policemen urged him to park wherever he wanted, close to the large pavilion that had escaped the tornado unscathed and where authorities intended to set up a staging area for relief efforts.

They were the only food preparers who came.

The Davidsons and Tom Fourcha, the church member who had needed the generator, got to work quickly. The three men grilled burgers and hot dogs from lunch till 9:30 that night, serving 500 meals to first responders, search and rescue volunteers and anyone who came.

Friday morning, church staff and members phoned friends and issued pleas on social media for help.

“We started sending out an S.O.S.,” Davidson said. “We were running out of food. It kinda grew.”

Davidson brought another large smoker from the ranch. Dozens of church members gathered to help cook and serve. Folks from other churches and the community pitched in. 

Groups were organized. Some drove daily to Sam’s Clubs in Lufkin and Conroe for food and paper goods. Teams formed, loading dozens of meals in pickups and ATVs and delivering them to neighborhoods where residents could not leave because of damage to their vehicles. 

“Taking the meals out to the community, we were able to pray with people and ministry aspect was heightened,” Davidson said. Residents who were skeptical on the first day of meal delivery became friends.

People who “looked at us like we were crazy [at first],” by Monday were inviting the Trinity Pines volunteers inside their houses, Davidson said. 

Church and community members brought donations of money and food. Another local congregation brought 25 pans of chicken spaghetti for one meal.

“People came up and handed us cash. They sent money using Facebook Messenger. They met us at the church with donations,” Davidson said.

Davidson estimated that from Thursday to Monday following the tornado, Trinity Pines prepared, served and delivered 14,000 meals.

“We had guys standing over grill pits 12-14 hours a day,” he said.

By Monday, the church volunteers were exhausted. “I knew we could keep it up 72 hours, but no more,” Davidson said. 

When the city asked for a few more days of assistance, Davidson contacted Tony Wolfe, SBTC director of church relations, who connected him with SBTC DR.

SBTC DR crews take over

In response, Southern Baptists of Texas Convention Disaster Relief volunteers brought a mass feeding kitchen from the Unity Baptist Association in Lufkin to relieve Trinity Pines members and prepare food provided by the Salvation Army. The effort was coordinated by SBTC DR Director Scottie Stice, who contacted Alvin Migues, Salvation Army Texas disaster director, for assistance.

“The Red Cross does not deploy mass care units in a COVID context,” Stice said. “We stepped up with the Salvation Army that provided food and volunteers to help distribute it.”

The SBTC DR mass feeding unit joined a QR quick response kitchen already deployed at the Onalaska fire station to feed first responders, emergency crews and SBTC DR chainsaw teams working in the area. In addition to the feeding teams, SBTC DR chaplaincy, clean up and recovery, shower, laundry and administrative volunteers deployed. 

SBTC DR chainsaw crews were among the earliest volunteer groups to arrive in the area. “Several of their first jobs involved cutting into home sites so the fire department and EMS could access victims with medical needs,” said Daniel White, SBTC DR incident leader.

Pine Forest Baptist Church in Livingston and Trinity Pines are hosting the SBTC DR volunteers, which number from 29-40 each day.

Stice said the deployment has involved volunteers from First Baptist Bellville, First Baptist Kountze, Flint Baptist, Tabernacle Baptist of Ennis, First Baptist Pflugerville, First Baptist Leonard and Beaumont Calvary Baptist in addition to those from the Unity Association. Feeding operations will run through May 1 while chainsaw work will continue at least another week. 

SBTC DR volunteers continued to assist the Houston Food Bank this week as well. A chainsaw team also deployed to Linden following wind damage there.

Counting the cost

Of Trinity Pines, Stice said, “They went to work immediately. Even before the local government brought resources on line, the church was mobilized and out there.”

The unexpected ministry came at a cost for the church, which averages close to 100 in attendance.

Davidson estimated the church spent about $5,000 in addition to the donations received.

When asked if they would do it again, he replied, “Absolutely—in a heartbeat.” He said, “It was our church. I may have accidentally started it. It’s them and their desire to help.  It would have been somebody else if it hadn’t been us. It ended up being us. My people are awesome.”

Davidson said his congregation’s “spirit was primed and ready to go,” that they had been focusing on understanding God’s will and exploring how to “impact the kingdom.” A recent sermon series on Philippians 2 left all seeking the “mind of Christ,” Davidson said.

Another price of ministry in a COVID-19 world is that Trinity Pines, rather than resuming physical services as some smaller area congregations will do on May 3, will be self-quarantining following the tornado. To date, Polk County has reported 19 coronavirus cases. Church feeding volunteers were unable to completely socially distance and may have been exposed.

“As church and ministry groups, we are staying apart for 14 days,” Davidson said, adding that services will continue online.

A new DR world

Pandemics make DR deployments complicated, necessitating extra housing and work space, face masks and other protective gear for volunteers. SBTC DR has released additional safety guidelines all volunteers must follow.

Still, God’s work continues. SBTC DR chaplains have made dozens of contacts and seen four professions of faith among East Texas storm victims.