By Joy Allmond
Hurricane Florence might have blown the steeple off The Gathering in Surf City, North Carolina, but it’s going to take a lot more than that for pastor Bobby Owings and his church to stop “living Jesus.”
Their motto, “Loving God, Living Jesus,” is how they’ve been known in their community since 2010, when Owings began pastoring what is formerly known as Surf City Baptist Church. And in the wake of Hurricane Florence, this congregation is primed to do those things in an impactful way.
The storm forced all of Topsail Island—where The Gathering is situated—in a mandatory evacuation over the weekend.
The massive storm ravaged much of the region, as the damage continues inland; area rivers are expected to crest as the week advances.
More than 20 deaths in the Carolinas have been reported, and around 15,000 have evacuated their homes for shelters. More than a half million households and businesses are without electricity, and thousands of homes are expected to flood.
Relief agencies such as Baptists on Mission and Samaritan’s Purse are on the ground providing incident management, which includes recovery work and feeding stations.
But the local church, Owings says, will be ground zero for ministry over the long haul in this devastated area.
“What I told our folks in a Facebook post yesterday is to simply love the people you come in contact with,” says Owings. “There’s a great deal of stress around here right now. The two priorities at The Gathering are: Loving God—which is our worship—and Living Jesus—which is loving those around us.
“I told them if they happen to be out in their yards cleaning up debris and they see their neighbor in their yard, walk over and talk to them, see how they’re doing. See if they need help.”
As of now, Owings—like many other residents of the Carolinas—has temporary living arrangements at a friend’s home located a mile a mile from his house. The ceiling in his house collapsed—as is the situation with several in his congregation.
A lot of the people in the Topsail area have moved there from other parts of the state, or even the country, says Owings.
“So when the storms started, a lot of them just left,” he says. “The people who have been here for generations stayed, like they always have.”
Owings says one of the challenges of ministry in the first few days of the hurricane aftermath is communication.
“I haven’t heard from many of my church members because cell coverage is spotty,” he says. “There’s standing water on the island and lots of sand in the streets. It seems weird to say, but we are some of the more fortunate ones.”
Still, he recognizes there is much work to be done—physical and spiritual work—as the water begins to recede and cleanup crews, volunteers, homeowners, and relief agencies begin to piece together the lives of southeastern North Carolinians.
Revitalization positions the church to minister effectively
The Gathering, one of two year-round churches on Topsail Island, was in major decline when Owings was called to pastor there in 2010. At the time, there were around 50 people in the congregation.
“And in the most extreme case, I believe there might have been 24 in the building one Sunday early on in my time there,” he adds.
When his pastorate began at what was then Surf City Baptist, Owings says the church was more focused on tourist ministry rather than the community that actually lived here.
“So we changed our priorities and reestablished some things,” he says. “If what we’re doing doesn’t align with those two things—loving God and living Jesus—we stop it. When you give people a simple understanding of who you are as a church—they recognize it’s not about all the complicated stuff we’ve created around our faith. They want to be part of something simple, something meaningful.”“Everyone’s stress level is elevated and it’s upon us to project that peace that passes understanding, be calming, show them the love of Christ in the middle of the worst times.”Today, The Gathering has around 500 in attendance at its four Sunday morning services.
“They come from every background under the sun,” says Owings. “We’ve even baptized 80-year-olds in the ocean. We’re running out of space, but looking for spaces to grow.”
Until the water recedes and volunteers from The Gathering can go out into the community and start helping with cleanup efforts and emotional and spiritual care, Owings says there are opportunities for The Gathering to build off of their community engagement.
“There are a couple of restaurants cooking up the food they have before it goes bad,” he says. “They’re firing up the generators and inviting people in to come eat.”
In the parking lot of Surf City Barbecue, he spent time with the people gathering from the community to get a hot meal and was able to encourage the Surf City firemen who came by for a bite.
“We’re running out of fuel for generators and vehicles,” he says. “But the community will pull together. They’ve done it time and time again.”
Given the challenges in his context, Owings says his church’s mission is more crucial than ever
“Everyone’s stress level is elevated,” he says, “and it’s upon us to project that peace that passes understanding, be calming, show them the love of Christ in the middle of the worst times. That’s what we’re called to do.”
Want to help those impacted by Hurricane Florence? Visit the Baptists on Mission website.
JOY ALLMOND (@joyallmond) is managing editor of Facts & Trends.