If a crisis ever demanded that Christians take risks to help people in desperate need, the suffering of millions of tsunami victims around the Indian Ocean is that crisis, the senior pastor of Germantown Baptist Church near Memphis, TN, has told his congregation.
Sam Shaw was with his parents in Broken Arrow, OK, for the Christmas holidays when he heard about the 9.0 earthquake and subsequent tsunami waves that destroyed 3,000 miles of coastline in that region. The death toll stands near 160,000 and is expected to continue to climb. Literally millions are homeless, and hunger and disease pose very serious threats to their lives.
"I realized immediately that this was the greatest disaster of our lifetime, and I felt an inner compulsion that we could not just sit by. We had to be involved," said Shaw, who has led the congregation for seven years. "And I knew that, as pastor of the church, I had to set an example," he said.
"When I got back home, I told my people that if ever there was a time for us to go to the extreme of traveling halfway around the world -- to a very difficult and not-so-safe situation -- this is it."
Shaw and five other church members headed toward Aceh, Indonesia, epicenter of the earthquake and scene of the worst tsunami damage.
"By God's grace, we made some divine connections and ended up being able to facilitate some relief work there," said Mark Morris, the congregation's minister of missions.
The team surveyed the damage in Aceh and talked with government officials, relief workers, and military leaders about how they could marshal the resources of concerned Christians in Memphis to help Aceh's survivors.
The destruction was beyond anything they had ever seen.
"I grew up in Oklahoma and I've seen tornado damage," Shaw said. "I lived in the Caribbean and I've seen hurricane damage. But this was multiplied 100 times worse. I have photographs I took of debris and clothing in the trees, 10 feet off the ground -- three miles from the ocean.
"The devastation is so overwhelming, the sight and smell of so many dead bodies. It is apocalyptic in proportions. It is just mind-numbing.
"We were looking out at miles of countryside that had not even been touched for the removal of bodies, and I sat there thinking about all those people who died. They're just gone."
The team knew, however, that they had to focus on the survivors, Shaw said.
"We tried to see the situation through God's eyes," he said. "We asked ourselves what God saw before the tsunami, what He sees now, and what He wants to see six months from now.
"That last question guided us to the decision that we would be more involved with the living than the dead."
The team was able to identify several locations where their assistance would be welcome and returned with a plan to send a series of small teams that would stay about 10 days. The teams would be made up of volunteers skilled in water purification, clean-up tasks, rebuilding, and working with women and children.
"The situation is very fluid. New needs emerge all the time. We're trying to be responsive to the needs," Morris said. "Water is the highest priority because it has been contaminated with salt water and sewage. Shelter is another tremendous concern because they're in the monsoon season now. And people need to rebuild their lives and homes and community activities. We're trying to help them with that process."
When Shaw challenged the congregation to get involved, the people responded like never before, Morris said.
"Usually when we have a team of volunteers going out, we ask people to come to the front of our worship center and pray for them. Usually only a few family and friends come," he said. "But when our pastor asked the congregation to gather around us and pray this time, the entire front of our worship center was filled with people kneeling and praying, asking God to guide us in this endeavor.
"We invited people to indicate whether they would be open to going, and we had 50 or 60 who gave us their names. Others have given sacrificially to help with the costs of the project. It just touched their hearts."
The disaster -- and the caring response of Jesus' followers -- will help Indonesians and other tsunami victims understand how much God loves them, Shaw said.
"These people will see God's love through a massive outpouring of assistance, through people actually sitting down with them and hurting with them. It's a clear expression of the love of Christ," he said.
Christians shouldn't even have to discuss whether to help in a crisis like this, Morris said.
"All you have to do is look at the life of Jesus and His teachings. This is the greatest disaster of our lifetime," he said. "How can we be concerned Christians and not be involved?"
Originally written for BPNews.net, January 14, 2005. Used by permission. For daily national news that covers the critical issues that shape your life, work and ministry, visit www.bpnews.net.