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On Sunday morning, church members won’t gather for worship services at Lifepoint Church in Wilmington, N.C., near where Hurricane Florence made landfall on Friday, downing trees, knocking out electricity, and threatening to cause catastrophic flooding in North and South Carolina.
But while the congregation won’t meet during the still-dangerous conditions on Sunday, Lifepoint Pastor Jeff Kapusta told me that doesn’t mean church is canceled.
“We want [members] to know they are the church,” he said. “You be the church to your neighborhood and community. We won’t be doing worship services, but we will be serving.”
Churches in the Carolinas and beyond began serving earlier in the week as Hurricane Florence barreled toward the Eastern Seaboard. At Lifepoint, pastors called church leaders in Houston and Florida to seek advice on caring for church and community members during the storm, and how to help after it passes.
Staff members at the church—where some 1,700 people attend—posted an online registration system, allowing members to inform staff where they would take shelter during the storm and how to reach them after the hurricane passed. More than 600 families registered, and each will receive a text message asking them to respond in one of two ways: “SAFE” or “HELP.” If a member asks for help, church leaders will follow up to see how they can assist. (In cases of emergency, church members should call 911.)
Church staff also began forming partnerships with other local churches to establish Lifepoint as a hub for receiving and distributing supplies after the storm. Volunteers from churches in the Wilmington area will work together to distribute needed items and deliver packages to community members during cleanup.
“We won’t be doing worship services, but we will be serving.” —Pastor Jeff Kapusta
Members of the faith-based group Mercy Chefs were battling traffic and road closures over the weekend to travel to Wilmington to set up a food hub at Lifepoint to serve up to 10,000 meals a day. Chef Gary LeBlanc founded the organization after enduring Hurricane Katrina in his hometown of New Orleans in 2006.
Meanwhile, a convoy of trucks and equipment from Samaritan’s Purse was rolling toward the coast on Saturday, preparing to begin recovery efforts in conjunction with local churches across the region. One team planned to set up in Wilmington, and another set up in New Bern, N.C., a city along the Trent River near the coast, where flooding already had devastated parts of town. By Saturday morning, rescue workers had saved some 400 people from rising floodwaters.
New Bern city officials had warned residents and visitors to flee the impending storm, but Mayor Dana Outlaw said it was hard to convince some people to leave. As stranded residents called 911, city officials sent out a message via text and Twitter: “WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU. You may need to move up to the second story, or to your attic, but WE ARE COMING TO GET YOU.”
Pastor Jim Pennington of Temple Baptist Church in New Bern drove to the site of the worst flooding, hauling a kayak and carrying his cellphone. He told the Baptist Press that he and another boater had evacuated several families from harm’s way. He also said some of his church members had lost their homes to the flooding. The Baptist Press reported that the facilities of at least four Southern Baptist churches in the area had been flooded by Saturday morning.
More than 3,000 volunteers with the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief effort were ready to deploy when needed, and the organization was ready to serve up to 175,000 meals a day in shelters and other locations.
Farther inland, communities across the Carolinas braced for torrential rainfall and the potential of extreme flooding, as forecasters warned heavy rain bands could dump 10 to 15 inches of rain across the Charlotte metro area for more than two days.
Back in Wilmington, residents waited to see how damaging the floods might grow in their own city, even as they prepared to think about how to help others. Pastor Kapusta at Lifepoint said he expected his church to maintain its relief efforts for weeks, and he looked forward to serving with Christians in the city: “Our hope is that whether we’re handing out a bottle of water or cleaning mud out of a house, we’ll be able to point people to Jesus.”