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For some, helping with disaster relief is not just aid, it’s a calling

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RAINSVILLE, Ala. >> Some couples spend retirement playing the nation’s best golf courses or hopping cruise ships. Not Marteen and Wiley Blankenship. They collect disasters the way other retirees collect passport stamps.

The minute they got the call from Southern Baptist Convention disaster relief leaders that tornadoes had ripped through the South, the Blankenships grabbed their sleeping bags and sturdy shoes and headed out from their home in Decatur, Ala.

Together, they have cleaned up after Hurricane Katrina, mucked out flooded homes in Atlanta and built houses in Sri Lanka. And for the past week they were camped out here in a rural part of northeastern Alabama where 48 lives were lost and thousands more disrupted in the storms.

Wiley Blankenship, 70, and Marteen Blankenship, 69, heated up chili and Salisbury steak, handing it out to people who drove through a church parking lot and packing it into Red Cross vans that carry meals into the remote countryside.

And they did it all for God.

“I thought when we were done working that I wanted to travel,” said Marteen Blankenship, a former flight attendant. “I just never thought it’d look like this. But it’s our calling.”

With the ability to feed 20,000 people from one mobile kitchen, and a chain of command so tightly run it would make a military officer proud, the Southern Baptist teams are the backbone of disaster relief here.

Nearly 95,000 Baptists across the country are trained to handle disasters like hurricanes and floods. After the Red Cross and the Salvation Army, the Baptist group is the biggest disaster relief organization in the country.

“We’re the best-kept secret out there,” said Ron Warren, cleanup and recovery coordinator for the Alabama Southern Baptist disaster relief group.

Of course, thousands of church members are doing their part to help the South recover from the tornadoes. They raise money, sort clothing donations and hand out water.

They are what the veterans of large faith-based relief efforts call SUVs — spontaneous untrained volunteers. The efforts are welcomed, but they have nothing on what the Southern Baptists bring to a disaster.

From an elaborate “war room” in a church building in Montgomery, Ala., to direct lines of communication with federal and local emergency agencies, the Southern Baptist disaster ministry is a model of efficiency.

Its renowned chain-saw crews were cutting fallen trees so medical crews could get to the injured in the hours after the tornadoes hit. They had an enormous mobile kitchen, complete with a hot-water heater for dishwashing and five convection ovens, set up here a day before the Red Cross arrived.

“Churches are literally, honestly, the first ones there,” said Jon Mason, director of the Alabama Governor’s Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

The Baptist relief efforts began in earnest during Texas’ hurricanes in the 1960s and became more organized in the 1980s. They and other large church disaster programs got a formal, though controversial, lift in 2001, when President George W. Bush created the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives.

But when it comes to disaster relief, the link between church and state has never been stronger than during the most recent storms in the South, say federal officials and the leaders of faith-based disaster relief work.

Joshua DuBois, executive director of what is now known as the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, credits David L. Myers, a Mennonite minister and the director of the Department of Homeland Security’s Center for Faith-Based and Community Initiatives. Meyers meets regularly with government emergency officials and church leaders to discuss how best to respond to disasters.

The Baptists are not the only church group with highly organized disaster relief teams. More than a dozen denominations, from the United Jewish Federation to the Islamic Circle of North America, jumped into relief operations here.

Each is known among government emergency crews for its own specialty. The Mennonites help to warehouse emergency supplies. The Presbyterians do counseling. Lutherans have a broad network of churches that can provide shelter, and specialize in long-term relief work.

All of them rely on donations and special fundraising events. Some work directly with the Red Cross and state and federal emergency management agencies, which provide supplies and technical assistance.

The Southern Baptists cook the food that the Red Cross provides, and then Red Cross crews help deliver it. Since March 31, the Southern Baptist Convention, the Salvation Army and the Red Cross have worked together to deliver more than 638,000 meals and snacks to communities affected by this spring’s rash of severe weather.

Churches can often get deeper into a community faster than secular rescue teams, said Juliet Choi, senior director of partner services for the American Red Cross. In the Deep South especially, volunteers from the National Baptist Convention, the largest African-American Christian denomination in the country, are an essential link between victims and government disaster services.

“There’s always a sense of comfort when you see someone who looks similar to you,” Choi said.

For the Baptists, spreading the word about Jesus Christ is an essential reason they head into disaster zones over and over.

“You have an opportunity to tell people that the Lord loves you,” Wiley Blankenship said. “When you hand someone food when they’re hungry, the door’s open.”

Still, the couple is used to sometimes having to be subtle. In Sri Lanka, they were cautioned against wearing crosses or the yellow shirts that identify them as part of the Southern Baptist Convention crew. And they were told not to witness.

“It didn’t stop me, though,” Marteen Blankenship said. She passed the word on to her interpreters.

Sitting on their inflatable beds in a Sunday school classroom here on what was their 48th wedding anniversary, they agreed that their main goal was helping people. There is no better feeling, they said.

The Blankenships, who pay their own way to the disasters, got their start when they answered a spiritual calling to volunteer for intensive disaster training through their church. But they never figured it would become the defining aspect of their lives.

“You think, ‘I’ll go every once in a while,’ ” Marteen Blankenship said, “but then it gets to you. It becomes part of your life. When something happens, you’ve just got to be there.”

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