What would cause 14 men and women, trained and certified in Disaster Relief to leave their home, travel about 25 hours to a small place just about 250 miles south of the Arctic Circle? The love of Christ, and a Servant's heart.
In the early hours of Thursday, June 9, groups of North Carolina Baptist Men and Women began their trek to Alberta Canada. Arriving in Fort McMurray around 11 pm they settled in with a team from Oklahoma. God had called the 14 men and women to assist with the return of the people of the region. The region had evacuated over 90,000 people in the face of the devastating fires. Many homes and businesses were destroyed, leaving the people to face a challenging future - the majority of them have no understanding of God or Jesus Christ. From North Carolina to just below the Arctic Circle, the hands, feet, and heart of Christ would make an impact.
The team under the leadership of Bill Martin, consisted of a Chaplaincy team under the coordination of "Doc" Marshall and a Feeding/Recovery team. The work consisted in sifting the ashes of the homes looking for any recoverable items, and bringing hope to a situation that looked totally hopeless.
Working and listening to the various accounts from the victims, we heard of the frightening evacuation to the airport and other locations down the highway with flames on both sides of the road. People left hurriedly with no concept of what they would find when they could finally return.
As the return began in earnest Saturday, standing in the YMM (Fort McMurray) airport, we had the opportunity to see the vacant looks, the deep sorrow and concern etched upon their tired and weary faces. Speaking with one young lady, she told her story of leaving with her husband and three young children through the fires. She and her husband had left their three children (one under a year of age) to come back for one day to handle the paperwork. She was struggling with a myriad of emotions, but God allowed us to pray and encourage her.
On Sunday, the team traveled about an hour up the road to a Cree Reservation called Fort McKay (pronounced Mc-Kii). The village had one Catholic Church where a priest came about once a month when he could. Four of the local Cree women joined us. We able to encourage and pray with them. A Ft. McMurray pastor, Clay Hilton of the Native American Fellowship led the service. It is his prayer for a work to start there. One of the women that we talked and prayed with was 95-year-old Flora Grandjambe. We were able to follow up over the next few days with these ladies.
The recovery team worked on sifting the ash in many of the homes. They were able to minister to the family members during this procedure. The workers had to dress in haz-mat type suits to work in the basements of these homes. One home, as they related, they were finding nothing. They stopped and prayed with the homeowners, and when they went back they began to discover a number of the families articles. The family was overwhelmed that their prayers were answered so quickly. At another home they worked at, the owner had lost a large coin collection. As they sifted they began to discover coin after coin. As they would discover the coins, the homeowners would vocally express their excitement.
Over the 10 days of deployment, we had the privilege of interacting with many varied individuals. This region of Canada has a very post-modern worldview when it comes to religion. They see all faiths as equal, and believe and teach in many of their churches that God is the same in Christian, Islam, Buddhism, and many other faith beliefs. Because of this many do not see the need or importance of a true faith in Jesus Christ. As the team would talk with men and women, they would ask if people would like them to pray for them. Some said yes and stopped to be prayed with, but many would say yes and move quickly away. "It is alright to pray for me, not with me." Bill Martin said that he was reminded how important having Christian values were.
A firefighter who had been working on the front line told of how one day as they were bulldozing a firebreak around a group of homes, the wind suddenly shifted and the fire began moving rapidly toward them. They quickly began to move backwards when they became aware that the fire was coming from that direction. They immediately stopped working and left the area. That evening he prayed all night for the homes in that location. When he returned in the morning, he was surprised to see most were unharmed. He began to feel that they would have "a victory over the fire."
The members of the team expressed their feelings about being a part of what God was doing in this area. Daniel Gillahan expressed that he saw this as an opportunity to be able to share the Gospel through acts of service and love to lost people in this area. Bruce Button shared that this is an opportunity to give some hope to those who have little left, while Emily Creech saw it as an opportunity to give a cup of water in Jesus' name. Nancy Jones spoke about the blessing that one receives by being His hands and feet. Carey Fleming gave a good summary that a trip like this helps us to see what missionaries go through. We were 14 missionaries serving Jesus Christ.