This article was written by Scott Barkley, national correspondent for Baptist Press
LAFAYETTE, Ga. (BP) – Vernon Barnett started his life of public service as a 17-year-old volunteer firefighter. For more than three decades he has experienced other roles of a first responder, including as an EMT and part-time patrol officer.
A member of Second Baptist Church, Barnett knew how important a strong faith can be in those jobs. He also knew that being on call, even when not on duty, made church attendance difficult. Nobody wants their radio to go off or a call to come in during the sermon.
An article Barnett read a year and a half ago gave him an idea for Second Baptist to help.
“A church in Florida had a special room for them and the guy who started it was kind of like me,” Barnett said. “I thought, ‘Why can’t we do something like that?’ I know so many of these guys.”
It began with some tables and chairs in the foyer. After a couple of weeks, a former bridal room that had also been used for storage was chosen as a more suitable spot. Barnett brought a spare coffee pot from home to go with Little Debbie cakes on one of the tables.
Then he made some phone calls.
“I reached out to some [first responders] I knew better and invited them to drop by the room for a cup of coffee and watch the service. I explained that no one could hear them and they could leave their radio on.”
About four showed up over the next few weeks, which also saw the coffee pot upgraded to a Keurig and other goodies added alongside the Little Debbies.
Five members of Second Baptist are first responders, with just as many consistent visitors making use of the room. Yes, it has cleared out at times for its audience to respond to the likes of fires, car crashes and domestic disputes.
Those on active duty have also stopped by for a cup of coffee before heading back out.
“It’s not a traditional method of outreach, but it helps us maintain that relationship with them,” Barnett said.
Second Baptist Pastor Mike Peterson has observed the way it has opened up doors.
“They really appreciate it because a lot of them want to go to church and this gives them the opportunity to do so,” he said.
It’s not unusual for first responders to have their wife and kids in the room as well, so they can worship together.
“Some days there won’t be any back there because they were responding late into the night on a fire, then other days there are five or six in uniform. I get to meet them and then see them later in town and they’ll remember me from the church,” Peterson said.
Barnett credits Cordell Kingsley, youth and worship pastor, and church member Tanya Torbett with getting the room together and technology in place.
“They just ran with it,” Barnett said. “They cleaned it out, decorated it and got some high tables and chairs.”
Kingsley just celebrated his third year at the church, which is his first full-time ministry position.
“The room provides an area for Christian community,” Kingsley said. “It’s cool to see families back there alongside other officers or firefighters.”
When the community meets a first responder, it’s often under bad circumstances. There are stressors to the job that are difficult to understand.
For Barnett, that reason and his personal experience testify to the need for the ministry.
“When you work in that community and get to know these people, you get a heart for them,” he said. “We just want to show them love in the Lord.
“They see things every day that most of us don’t. We just want to give them the best outlet to deal with that.”