Gassville, AR. – The White River Baptist Association recently trained 45 new volunteers for its newly reorganized Disaster Relief Unit. This was a big deal for an association that has seen a slow and steady decline in participation in this vital ministry. For many years, Disaster Relief (DR) has played a key role in the ministry of the White River Baptist Association. Selfless volunteers have given countless hours to faithfully minister to the needs of disaster survivors in Arkansas and around the country. The impact that they have made through the years continues to be felt to this day.
In 2003, the White River Disaster Relief Team answered the call to serve after a tornado touched down outside of Joplin, Missouri. The team was hosted by the North Main Baptist Church in Joplin and pastor Ron Crow. For Crow, this was his first encounter of any kind with Disaster Relief. “I think there were 9 or 10 of them on that crew. They stayed with us for probably eight days. We took care of them, and they worked with us to minister to those impacted by the tornado,” Crow said. “The whole experience helped to create an interest in me and a couple of the guys in my church for Disaster Relief.”
Crow approached his director of missions and asked why they couldn’t do something like that in their area. The director of missions replied with, “Why don’t you?” So, Crow decided to answer the call and reached out to the Missouri state director to find out how to get started. Spring River Baptist Association’s first Disaster Relief unit was started in Joplin, Missouri.
Crow became the pastor of First Baptist Church of Diamond City, Missouri in 2004 where he continued to serve as the associational coordinator for several years. During that time, they developed a chainsaw unit and a shower unit. They also built a building and added trucks along with a skid steer. Crow soon got involved at the state level and became the Missouri Associate State DR Director for several years.
In February of 2021, God called Crow to Louisville, Kentucky where he now serves as the Disaster Relief Director for the Kentucky Baptist State Convention. Looking back, Crow is grateful for the many men and women who poured into him and helped grow his passion for Disaster Relief. He’s also grateful for a particular association and their willingness to cross state lines to serve. “Recently I came across a Facebook post about the White River Baptist Association. It was interesting to read about them after all these years because they were instrumental in my journey in Disaster Relief,” Crow said. “In fact, they were the ones that got me started.”
Down but not out
Stace Cupples began serving as Associational Missionary for the White River Baptist Association six years ago. When he arrived, the association still had an active DR team, but they were beginning to slow down. Most of the volunteers were getting older and many were growing physically unable to do the work or even attend the necessary training.
Cupples knew there was still a need for a DR team that was trained and prepared to go when called upon. They had the necessary equipment, a trailer full of “incredible chainsaws and other tools.” The association also had a skid steer which they had purchased brand new before Cupples arrived. They had everything they needed to keep the ministry going, except for the volunteers.
“What was happening is when I came in, they were active, but over time, they just got where they weren’t active anymore. We can blame a lot of stuff for that, but we weren’t able to get trained and that got frustrating. I didn’t know what to do to get this thing going again,” Cupples said.
It’s a God thing
As Cupples was praying and wondering what to do, God was already working, stirring people’s hearts, bringing people together, and doing what only He could do to revitalize the DR ministry.
A little over a year ago, God moved Matthew Bond from serving as a church planter in Canada to serve as Family and Youth Pastor at the River Bible Church in Mountain Home. Bond had a history with Disaster Relief in Louisiana through Katrina and other disasters that happened there. He discovered that his pastor, Eric Smeltzer, also had a passion for Disaster Relief and both knew they needed to do something. So, Bond contacted Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief Director Randy Garrett and worked with the association to set up a DR training for area churches.
At the same time, God was also stirring the heart of Greg Mills, a member at River Bible Church, preparing him for a unique role in Disaster Relief. Mills had retired a few years ago and he and his wife were volunteering with the National Park Service. They were serving in North Carolina when Hurricane Dorian hit. They volunteered to help, but because they were not part of an organization, Mills says there was a lot of red tape and a lot of hoops they had to jump through. “We saw that the relief organizations were very efficient. We saw the impact of an organized disaster team, so when we came back, we wanted to do those types of things,” Mills said.
Mills was not aware at the time of the plans to revitalize the Disaster Relief ministry in the association. He just knew he wanted to be trained and was willing to be assigned with a team somewhere in the state. So, he went online to the Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief page and signed up for the next training that was offered.
Mills met with Bond and Pastor Smeltzer the next Sunday, excited to share his plans to be trained and credentialed. He was surprised to learn about the plans for the upcoming training for the association. “That’s how we knew God had a hand in this,” Mills said. “We were totally unaware of each other’s intentions and yet here we were, going down the same road together.”
After the initial training, Mills was approached by Cupples, Bond and Pastor Smeltzer and asked if he would be willing to attend “blue cap” unit leader training where he would become the official leader for the White River Baptist Association DR Team. Mills agreed, and after receiving the training, took the roster of 45 brand new volunteers and began the process of building a team.
It wasn’t long before the newly trained volunteers were called to go and serve. Straight line winds had caused a tree to fall onto a house belonging to one of the members of River Bible Church. Cupples called Mills and asked if he had a group that could take care of this need. Mills gathered a group of volunteers and jumped into action. They had everything they needed to minister to this family and offer immediate assistance.
A short time later, they were called up again, this time to Ash Flat. Although Ash Flat is not a part of their association, just like in days past, the team was ready and willing to go wherever they were needed. The team joined with a crew from Rocky Bayou Baptist Association and the two groups worked together as one to minister to those in need. “The fact that they were able to do that right after their training is such an important thing. It’s neat how this has fallen into place. It is not something that was planned obviously, except by God himself. And these folks that are a part of this are just on fire for the ministry,” Cupples said.
Excited for the future
One of the most exciting things about the new Disaster Relief volunteers is the diversity in ages. Bond and Cupples attribute this to promoting Disaster Relief as a local ministry as well as giving volunteers immediate opportunities to serve. “I think most people think that Disaster Relief means you must be ready to give up a week to go to New Orleans to work. I think most people don’t realize you can be a part of the team, even if you’re only available locally on Saturdays, that a large percentage of Disaster Relief is not actually a week-long deployment,” Bond said.
Plans are already in the works to add new ministry opportunities to the White River team. Cupples says that while there is currently one complete chainsaw team, the desire is to have two teams that will always be on standby. “The goal is that once one team is called out for one or two weeks, they come back, and the other team goes out. That would be beautiful to see it that way. And I think we have the potential for that to happen,” Cupples said.
God has also provided the means for the team to add a box ministry so they can help survivors pack and move their belongings during a disaster. Mills retired from Baxter Healthcare; a large manufacturing facility located in Mountain Home. Baxter breaks down boxes daily from all the supplies they receive and sends them out to be recycled. Mills called the supply chain manager and asked if they could have some pallets of boxes on a regular basis and was told they could have as many as they wanted.
Cupples is excited about the future of Disaster Relief in the association. He says it’s been great to see the ministry begin to flourish and to see the passion for ministry begin to grow. He believes people are ready to get involved again. While he believes that Disaster Relief can provide many opportunities for people to serve in the future, he also hopes this is a steppingstone for other ministries and mission opportunities as well.