Pence visits Florida, encourages survivors and volunteers

By Brandon Elrod

(PANAMA CITY, Fla.)—On Thursday morning, Oct. 25, Vice President Mike Pence, his wife, Karen, and Florida Gov. Rick Scott visited Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla.

They arrived to encourage survivors of Hurricane Michael, military members, Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) and other volunteers who have been serving the community in the aftermath of the storm.

“It’s deeply moving to us to see the level of devastation but also to see the resilience of everyone here and also to see the generosity—the generosity of the Southern Baptist Convention, Hiland Baptist Church, the [American] Red Cross,” Pence said before asking the crowd to thank the volunteers with a round of applause.

Vice President Mike Pence and Fla. Gov. Rick Scott meet with Florida Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) volunteers on site at Hiland Park Baptist Church in Panama City, Fla. Volunteer teams with SBDR set up a feeding and recovery site at Hiland Park following Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10. NAMB photo by Sara Brockmann.

“Thank you for what all you are doing. It gives evidence of the old proverb that says, ‘The wind blew and beat against the house. The flood waters rose, but it did not fall because it was built upon the rock,’” Pence said. “I can see that this place was built upon the rock. The testimony of the generosity here is a testimony of that.”

“I’ve seen so many groups of [Southern Baptists] that have been serving meals across the state,” said Gov. Scott while also mentioning American Red Cross. “There are so many volunteers. You can tell story after story of people who have done things and gone out of their way to help other people.”

During responses to Hurricanes Michael and Florence, SBDR sites have received visits from government leaders—a sign that Southern Baptists are making a great impact in their service following disasters, said Sam Porter, the national director for disaster relief with the North American Mission Board (NAMB).

President Donald Trump visited an SBDR site at Temple Baptist Church in New Bern, N.C. in September, and Gov. Rick Scott visited a site at the Chipola Baptist Association’s Chipola Family Ministries on October 20.

Hiland Park Baptist Church pastor Steven Kyle (in blue jacket) shows Vice President Mike Pence (in khaki pants), Second Lady Karen Pence and Fla. Gov. Rick Scott (in Navy hat) around the neighborhood surrounding the church. Hiland Park, in Panama City, Fla., was hit hard by Hurricane Michael, which made landfall on Oct. 10. NAMB photo by Sara Brockmann.

“It is always encouraging when people like the President, Vice President or local leaders visit our sites,” said Porter. “I believe I can speak for all of our SBDR volunteers, though, and say that the greatest reward is the thanks and gratitude we receive from those we are there to serve.”

Hiland Park pastors Steven Kyle and Carl Fondren gave the Vice President and Gov. Scott a tour of their storm-ravaged sanctuary. The worship facility suffered severe damage, but the church still decided to stage an SBDR kitchen and house volunteers on their campus. An SBDR team comprised primarily of Florida Baptists arrived two days after Hurricane Michael made landfall and began serving meals on Saturday, Oct. 13.

Vice President Mike Pence and his wife Karen survey the damage done to Hiland Park Baptist Church’s sanctuary by Hurricane Michael, which hit the Florida Panhandle on Oct. 10. Executive pastor Carl Fondren (left), Fla. Gov. Rick Scott (in Navy hat) and lead pastor Steven Kyle (behind Karen) surveyed the damage alongside the Vice President. NAMB photo by Sara Brockmann.

Several churches in the Florida Panhandle, Georgia and Alabama have been housing volunteers and hosting SBDR feeding and cleanup teams in the weeks since the storm made landfall.

In Florida, there are seven active SBDR feeding sites, most of which also host recovery teams that go out into the community to help residents clear their homes and yards of downed trees and other storm debris.

Many of those who are volunteering and leading the Southern Baptist response have been directly affected by the storm. Delton Beall, the disaster relief director with the Florida Baptist Convention, and Eddie Blackmon, a disaster response coordinator with NAMB’s Send Relief ministry both live in the Bay county area that took a direct hit from the storm.

Blackmon grew up in Panama City and moved back in recent years. While his home did not suffer significant damage, many of the buildings and trees he knew so well are now gone. “The Panama City I grew up knowing has been changed and changed dramatically,” he said.

A tree fell on Beall’s home in Lynn Haven, Fla., just north of Panama City. For the first two weeks, he helped to coordinate the Southern Baptist response from the Emergency Operations Center in Tallahassee, Fla. Friends and family helped take care of immediate needs, but Beall only recently returned to personally attend to his home.

While back in the neighborhood, Beall and his wife ate an SBDR-prepared meal delivered by American Red Cross for the first time. “I never thought I would be the recipient of one of our own meals,” he said.

Beall and Blackmon represent the stories of several SBDR volunteers who make great sacrifices to serve communities devastated by disaster.

In Georgia, Hurricane Michael sent hurricane-force winds as far north into the state as Albany, Ga., delivering catastrophic damage to several rural communities during its tear across the state.

Stuart Lang, the disaster relief director with the Georgia Baptist Mission Board, has helped lead Southern Baptists during the response in Georgia. This has been Lang’s first time, in 12 years as director, that he has been a part of a response this large, with several out-of-state SBDR teams coming to serve.

Lang said that he has been grateful for the speed and efficiency of the SBDR teams and encouraged by the “cooperative spirit” felt among the other state SBDR teams and NAMB, who helps coordinate large, multi-state responses.

Lang also reported that associational missions strategists in rural counties have been moved to tears because of the work of SBDR volunteers. “They’re asking for prayer, not only for cleanup, but they’re asking that this storm will be a catalyst for revival,” Lang said.

So far, Southern Baptists have prepared more than 500,000 meals for Hurricane Michael survivors, aided nearly a thousand residents clear their yards and homes of downed trees and helped more than 200 homeowners meet their temporary roofing needs.

Disaster relief leaders anticipate that SBDR will remain at certain sites in Florida to continue providing meals through Thanksgiving.

To donate SBDR and learn more about how you and your church can get involved, visit

Brandon Elrod writes for the North American Mission Board.

Published October 25, 2018