Low-key Southern Baptists power N.J. food relief

At Ancora, Barbara Dover of Charleston, S.C., prepares applesauce. Prepared food later goes into sealed coolers.
At Ancora, Barbara Dover of Charleston, S.C., prepares applesauce. Prepared food later goes into sealed coolers. (APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 06, 2012

In one of Paul's New Testament letters, the apostle and early Christian evangelist talks about God's gifts of the spirit - gifts for preaching, healing, and wisdom.

Lercy Bourque's gift is an ability to figure out why the industrial-grade electric can opener isn't working.

"I think we have a bad wire," Bourque, 71, said from a little town outside Charleston, S.C.

Bourque's gift mattered Saturday when he led a crew of about 25 Southern Baptists from South Carolina who spent the day cooking 5,000 lunches and 5,000 dinners for victims of Hurricane Sandy.

"I'm a physical person," he said, "and I like to use my physical abilities."

Turn on the television after any disaster and sooner or later, a Red Cross representative will show up before the camera to say how many meals the disaster-relief organization served that day.

That's served. The agency may be serving, but the Southern Baptists are doing the cooking.

These volunteers are cooking in portable kitchens often set up miles away, in this case on the grounds of Ancora Psychiatric Hospital in Winslow Township, Camden County, en route to Atlantic City.

They are staying in one of the buildings and working 12- to 14-hour days that begin and end with prayer.

They work hand-in-glove with the Red Cross, which arranges for tractor-trailer loads of canned goods to be delivered to the tent kitchens and sends trucks to distribute the meals to shelters.

On Saturday, there were nine routes, serving shelters in churches and schools along the coast from Belmar south - 200 meals to the Atlantic City High School, more to the Atlantic City Convention Center, for example.

It's a logistical tour de force, and largely, except among the Southern Baptists, unknown, because their work is done out of sight of the TV camera crews, which tend to visit the soup kitchens, shelters, and disaster canteens where the food is served.

"We are doing it for the love of Jesus," Bourque said.

Their organizational structure is impressive.

Across the United States, there are 85,000 to 95,000 trained Southern Baptist disaster-relief volunteers, said Kenton Hunt, a pastor from northern Pennsylvania.

He leads a crew from Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

The crews are organized by geographical area, with a group of churches getting together to buy equipment and develop teams of volunteers.

In the South, where, not surprisingly, there are more Southern Baptists, the geographical area may be as small as a county. Pennsylvania and New Jersey together constitute one group.

There are daily nationwide disaster-relief conference calls during which the local Southern Baptist coordinator can request help and crews from around the country are dispatched according to their capabilities and the needs of the situation.

Hunt said the Red Cross, Salvation Army, and the Southern Baptists are the nation's three largest disaster-relief organizations.

The South Carolina crew members left their home Wednesday morning and arrived in New Jersey at 2:30 a.m. Thursday. They slept until 5:30 a.m., had prayer at 6:30 a.m., were served breakfast by the Pennsylvania and New Jersey crew, and began to set up their kitchen. Within an hour or two, they were working on thousands of lunches that were delivered Thursday.

The South Carolina crew brought a truck with four ovens and four "tilting skillets," crib-sized stainless-steel saucepans that can be tilted to make serving easier.

Saturday's lunch menu was beef stew right out of the can, corn, applesauce, chips, cookies, and beverages.

The well-practiced system centers on hundreds of red coolers, which when sealed tight lose just four degrees of heat in an hour. They can also be used for cold food. They are lined with heavy-duty plastic bags and are sanitized after every use. A crew of four or five works all day with hoses and steamers to clean them.

Just the applesauce was a miracle in logistics.

Trucks delivered 37 cases of applesauce, which volunteers moved to the kitchen tent on forklifts.

Inside the tent, one person opened the cases and unpacked the six cans, each 6 pounds, 12 ounces. Two volunteers wiped the lids to sanitize them, sliding them down the table where two more volunteers manned the can openers (thank goodness Bourque fixed the wiring).

Working in teams of three, one volunteer dumped the cans into the plastic bag in the cooler, another used a spoon to scrape more of it, and a third collected the empties. Someone with a checklist figured out where that applesauce cooler should go, wrote the destination on duct tape, and taped it to the lid.

A similar process was followed with the hot beef stew tilted in the plastic-bag lined coolers sealed for heat.

Eventually both kinds of coolers - along with coolers of cooked canned corn - would be moved onto a pallet, then loaded onto one of the Red Cross trucks waiting by the curb. Those, too, are driven by volunteers, including two retirees from Florida.

Timing and organization are key because there is no ability to keep the food. It must be eaten at the right temperature at the right time, or thrown out.

"You have to be called to serve in a time of crisis," said Judie Cooper, 54, of Anderson, S.C.

Cooper was on the young side of the volunteers. Most were in their 60s and 70s, with impressive stamina.

On Sunday, Bourque and his crew of 25 plan to return to South Carolina, replaced by a crew from the same area familiar with the equipment.

A typical deployment is for five days, including transit. The last crew will include people who know how to pack up the trucks.

Contact Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-854-2769, jvonbergen@phillynews.com, or follow @JaneVonBergen on Twitter. Read her workplace blog at www.philly.com/jobbing.

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