With more than one million man hours and three million meals given away per year, the Southern Baptist Disaster Relief (SBDR) agency plays an important role in disaster recovery. In 1968 the SBDR was formed to help meet needs of those affected by natural disasters. Since that time, SBDR has become the third largest disaster relief agency in the United States (behind only The Red Cross and Salvation Army). Right now, over 95,000 volunteers have been trained by the SBDR in every arena from chainsaws crews to day care workers. Despite receiving zero federal funding, both the Governor of Texas, Greg Abbott and Vice President of the United States, Mike Pence expressed their appreciation to the SBDR at the Southern Baptist Convention in Dallas. All funds and volunteers for the SBDR are supplied by local Southern Baptist Churches.
As these volunteers don their trademark yellow caps once again and respond to the aftermath of hurricane Florence, perhaps it is a good time for to remind ourselves why Southern Baptists formed an entire agency with emphasis on disaster relief.
The Image of God
Irenaeus, one of the first Christians to address the imago Dei, wrote that there is a distinction to be made between the ideas of image and likeness. He theorized that image formed a baseline for all humanity. However, likeness—the degree to which we are similar to God in character and action—has been affected by sin. To some, that may appear to be a distinction without a difference, but the manner in which Southern Baptists respond to crisis-after-crisis may help shed some light on the subject.
The Yellow Hats
When an act of God throws a hurricane on the American Coast, Southern Baptists respond by offering help for every man, woman, and child. In so doing, their commitment to the imago Dei is put into practice—the baseline of God’s image is respected. Think of it like this: Southern Baptists are pro-life for all of human life. While our belief concerning the imago Dei gets more media coverage in our opposition to abortion, every man, woman, and child from the womb to his or her eternal destiny bears the image of God. As such, SBDR reaches out and works to rescue every person possible—every image of God—in a disaster. Their reasoning for doing so is not to gain political power, increase revenue, or place the SBC in the spotlight. Instead, 95,000 volunteers, capped in yellow, get up, go out, and rescue others because “God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him.”
When Irenaeus wrote on the difference between image and likeness, he recognized that despite mankind being created in the image of God, there was a discrepancy between mankind’s status and character. This gap can only be bridged by a change in man’s heart—a change only possible through the gospel. Offering help to others is not the finish line for practicing the imago Dei. SBDR will care for anyone regardless of their sins. Drunkards, abusers, the sexually immoral, etc.— all receive a baseline of care. Help is offered to all. But, SBDR is not only disaster relief and victim care; it proclaims the gospel and calls for response.
In 2017 the SBDR recorded over 4200 gospel presentations. They also reported that more than 800 people responded to the gospel in faith and were connected with local churches. Earthly disasters are temporal but a spiritual disaster is eternal. As such, the goal of SBDR is not merely to save people from flooded communities, but also to redeem communities from the flood of sin. Some perils are overcome by bread, but eternal peril is only overcome by the Bread of Life.
So look for the Yellow Hats. Undoubtedly they’ll be living out Southern Baptist doctrine and fulfilling the words an old hymn:
Rescue the perishing
Care for the dying
Tell them of Jesus mighty to save.
Pastor Summerville First Baptist, married to Danielle, father of four, PhD student @SWBTS, MDiv SWBTS 2012, BA Theatre OSU