Hurricane Matthew made landfall in the United States as a Category 1 Hurricane. In Lumberton, N.C., an hour and a half from the coastline, the swampy Lumber River rose seven feet above flood stage, displacing more than 250 people from their homes and 600+ into FEMA-funded hotel rooms.

 In the middle of the night, those who live around the river woke up to their homes sitting in six feet of flood waters. Boats would dock on porches so those trapped could have easy access from their front door to salvation. Massive steel propane tanks, cars and storage buildings were pushed away into the wooded areas of the river along with personal photos, documents, clothing and other light-weight possessions that one would acquire. For most of the Lumberton residents living in  generational poverty, they started the day with nothing and ended the day with less. 

As I was watching Vermonter Jim Cantore report from my home state of N.C. along a section of interstate that I have traveled hundreds of times, I was texting back and forth with Rev. Alan Taylor. Alan and Deborah are friends who live in Lumberton and serve as the Director of Missions for the Robeson Baptist Association. Last summer, Deborah traveled to Barre, Vt., to help us with our Vacation Bible School in which we reached over 100 kids with the Gospel.

Alan and Deborah represent a partnership that North Carolina Baptists have shared with Vermont since 2005. In that time, they have invested thousands of dollars, countless hours of manpower and an infinite amount of Gospel seed planting in the Green Mountain State. Under the leadership of Steve and Nellene Carter, hundreds of North Carolinians have made the 14+ hour drive from the Tarheel State to plant churches, share the Gospel, build/remodel buildings, make disciples, serve popcorn, play games and love Vermonters to a relationship with Christ.  The Gospel imprint of North Carolina Baptists is alive and fresh today. As recently as March 7, while enjoying my favorite cheeseburger, I met another church planter who is moving to New England from Hickory, N.C., to start a new work.

Watching Jim Cantore stand in the flooded section of I-95, Green Mountain Baptist Association (GMBA) Director of Missions Bill Wennersten and I began to discuss this opportunity for Vermont to give back to North Carolina.

On February 22, 16 Vermonters representing four churches (Faith Community, Enough Ministries, Lyndon Center and Union Baptist) from the GMBA left the cold and snow for warm and sunny Lumberton, N.C. While there, we made new friends: Rev. Bob Jordan and the members of Zion Tabernacle Baptist Church, our host church and new partner for Central Vermont. All of our meals were served at the NC Disaster Relief Command Center based at Hyde Park Baptist Church.

From there we were assigned to two homes, one of which was owned by an older gentleman named Ervin. We called the home “Macon Street.” Ervin woke up the morning of the storm at 5 a.m. to simply turn over in his sleep. As he turned his arm fell in the floodwater that unknowingly surrounded his bed. Ervin got to the front door of his house to find his daughter standing at the road unable to reach him. He waited for three hours before being rescued by the local rescue squad that was in view of his front door.  

Ervin lost everything -- his car is soaked and covered in swampy mud, his belongings have been cast throughout his property into the dense woods behind his storage shed. Pictures of his two sons and wife, all deceased, lay in the dirt of his steel framed carport, just waiting to be saved or thrown out. Ervin’s house was flooded with the dark water of the Lumber river and the dark pain of losing everything.

In Ervin’s neighborhood every home was destroyed. Only a few can be rebuilt; many are hopeless. One family just moved back into their new double-wide trailer. Herbert, the homeowner, complained the only thing they didn’t have was air conditioning, a necessity in the South. Thanks to the generosity of Lyndon Center Baptist Church, we were able to provide them with box fans they can install in their windows. But those fans weren’t the most important gift we shared with his family. We gave Herbert a Bible and explained the Gospel to him. Even in his uncertainty, Herbert prayed with us for his salvation. Lift up Herbert and the other men that live with him.

Across the street from Ervin’s house is a small trailer owned by a single mother. We can tell that she is having a difficult time, not just from the flood but from addiction. There is no way to salvage her home, yet she clings to the hope that it can be restored. Our team visited with this family twice, shared the Gospel and gave them Bibles and gift cards, as well primed and painted her home.

As for Ervin, we entered his home that was covered in sheet rock but hadn’t been “mudded” and discovered there were still some moisture problems. Our team finished the sheet rock job, rebuilt two bathrooms, prepped his kitchen for new counters, cleaned his yard and even purchased new plants for his flower bed. Ervin came by every day to ask questions and get to know us. We knew upfront that people are more important than projects. Our crew made every effort to get to know Ervin and his family. We discovered Ervin knew Christ but abandoned the church after his wife’s passing. As God normally does, He has temporarily placed Ervin near the church that was hosting our team. We left Ervin with a gift of $100.00 for his new home and hopefully a new church family.

All in all, we gave away $350 in gifts or supplies and shared the Gospel with nine people. We built a new partnership with Zion Tabernacle Baptist Church; they are planning on sending a team up later this summer. As for Ervin, his house is now ready for paint.  We currently have another GMBA team traveling to Lumberton April 16 to 23. Please pray for those they will be interacting at with and for unity in their group.

Coming home from this trip has birthed a new desire for missions in our state and in the BCNE. We now have two team members signed up for Disaster Relief Training at the end of March. Our team is beginning plans to partner with churches in Washington D.C., beginning in April of 2018. Our trip has also given birth to greater cooperation within our own state. We come home with the idea of what would happen if we partnered with each other to meet local needs and help nearby churches with community outreach projects. It’s time for new frontier states like Vermont to begin standing on our own, and it took giving back to our family in North Carolina to help us realize it’s possible.

On a final note: I was a young North Carolina pastor that November morning that we heard the first proposal of creating a partnership between the Baptist State Convention of NC and the GMBA. From my chair in the Greensboro Coliseum, I voted to approve this partnership with no thought of going to, much less living or serving in, the Green Mountain State. What a difference 12 years of walking by faith will make in the life of an individual! Thank you, Vermonters, for giving back to my beloved home state. May we never take for granted the significance of the moments God lays before our lives.

Chris Autry is the lead pastor at Faith Community Church in Barre, Vt.