My first week as pastor at First Baptist Church in Pensacola, Fla., will be unforgettable. My wife, Amanda, and I arrived at our temporary residence on Monday, July 4th. Little did we know that the celebratory fireworks of Independence Day would be followed by an explosive outbreak of tropical weather in the Gulf later that week.
At the beautifully renovated missionary home, we were greeted by the friendly faces of church members who gathered to assist with unloading. Inside, we found a fragrant bouquet of freshly picked flowers, a fruit basket filled with apples and citrus, a pantry stocked with all kinds of groceries, and a mailbox filled with personal cards and letters welcoming us to Pensacola and to First Baptist Church. What a warm and generous Baptist welcome!
On Tuesday, as we began unpacking, we were notified that Tropical Depression Cindy was approaching and that we should prepare for high winds and temporary power outages. We were not surprised when, early Wednesday morning, Cindy passed directly over our community. However, Cindy produced a lot of wind, a little rain, and virtually no damage.
Then early on Thursday, the entire Panhandle was placed under a hurricane watch as Hurricane Dennis churned the waters of the Caribbean. The watch was soon upgraded to a hurricane warning as Dennis stormed toward the Gulf of Mexico.
As the hours passed, anxiety accelerated in Pensacola as the media began to compare Dennis to Hurricane Ivan, the slow-moving storm that devastated Pensacola in 2004. As this new potentially destructive storm approached, evacuation orders were given and large numbers of local residents moved to higher ground.
Because First Baptist has served as a staging location for disaster relief teams in the past, and because the church facility is still undergoing repairs from Ivan, Amanda and I joined a small group of FBC staff and members who bunkered down on the lower levels of the First Baptist campus in order to look after the building and to prepare for relief work if necessary.
On Saturday evening and early Sunday morning our band of “storm troopers” watched the local news and radar, continuing to pray that the powerful and historically deadly storm would dissipate.
Out of concern for the safety of our members, we, along with all our sister churches in the area, had been advised to cancel our regularly scheduled Sunday services. However, the group staying on campus gathered in the chapel for an impromptu time of worship at 9 o’clock on Sunday morning. We prayed, sang hymns, and I shared a brief message about “Listening for the Music in the Storm” from Psalm 46.
As the storm advanced toward the coast, conversations ensued about the ethical implications of our prayers. Someone noted that we really couldn’t pray for the storm to hit another town. Another said we should pray that the storm would just turn around and return to the gulf. Still another jokingly said perhaps the casinos in Mississippi would be the more appropriate target.
By 1 p.m. we were encouraged by new storm data indicating the winds were losing a little strength, the storm surge predictions were being reduced and the most populated areas could avoid a direct hit.
The storm hit at approximately 2:25 p.m. on Sunday afternoon. The western eye wall skirted Pensacola. As the storm passed, our crew on campus was busy tending to roof leaks and reinforcing sand bags at the doors. The worst part of the storm lasted around 50 minutes.
As the storm subsided, we joined the emergency personnel and members of the surrounding community in breathing a collective sigh of relief. Though Dennis wreaked havoc with fallen trees and inflicted minor damage on many homes and business, the damage in no way compares to the devastation caused by Ivan.
While our First Baptist campus did incur additional roof damage and water damage, it could have been much worse. And while we are counting our blessings, our prayers certainly go out to those in our neighboring counties who sustained considerably more damage than Pensacola.
My first week in Pensacola will be unforgettable, not just because of Hurricane Dennis, but because character and cooperation of the church and community has overshadowed any inconvenience caused by the storm.
During the pre-hurricane chapel service, I shared a devotional reflection from Psalm 46 which reminds us that whatever we face: “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore, we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though the waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.”
Early on Monday morning, soon after the sun arose, damage was being assessed, evacuees were returning home, neighbors were assisting neighbors and gas stations and grocery stores were re-opening. The process of restoring utility services has begun and will continue for several days.
My first week is permanently etched in my memory. I am preparing to move into my new office to begin ministry. Or perhaps it has begun already.
Barry Howard is senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Pensacola, Fla.
Pastor at the Wieuca Road Baptist Church in Atlanta. He also serves as a leadership coach and columnist for the Center for Healthy Churches.