Ala. group helps church after Katrina

Published 5:00 am Monday, June 16, 2008

It’s not necessarily that the Lord works in mysterious ways, butjust that He works – and He doesn’t mind the heat.

Last week, unimpeded by the thick, wet southern summer, afaith-based group of woodworkers from three Alabama Baptistchurches wrapped up a seven-day invasion of Wesson’s Zion HillBaptist Church, where they had spent 12-hour days dripping sweat,love and mercy to knock together boards in the name of Jesus.

An Alabama chapter of Carpenters for Christ, consisting of morethan 60 professional and amateur carpenters from the Lindsay Laneand Clements Baptist churches in Athens and the First BaptistChurch of Decatur, essentially conducted an old-fashion churchraisin’ in just a week’s time. They labored to nail together theframework for Zion Hill’s new, 12,000 square-foot auditorium.

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Carpenters for Christ returned to Alabama Thursday, leaving thenew building “blacked in” – a complete frame and roof ready to befinished out with doors, windows and interior work.

It was the group’s 10th project in nine years of existence. JimEarnest, basically the foreman in the North Alabama chapter ofCarpenters for Christ, said his group has built brand new churchesfrom scratch, dormitories at Southern Baptist colleges and workedfor downtown rescue missions in Ohio.

Earnest’s chapter of Carpenters for Christ was even born ofanother Carpenters for Christ chapter.

“At Lindsay and Clements Baptist churches, a lot of ourbuildings were built by Carpenters for Christ teams,” Earnest said.”They built the first buildings at both.”

The group has worked in Mississippi, Alabama, Tennessee, SouthCarolina and Ohio. The traveling experience shows.

The Alabamians were right at home during the Zion Hillconstruction, unfazed by the hot, heavy air and drainingsunlight.

They bent over, strained and stretched to swing hammers whilebalancing on the crest of the roof and moved effortlessly throughthe rafters with nailguns. They appeared as poised as a bird on awire, 30 feet above the cold concrete foundation.

And not all of them were born with the gift.

“Some of our team members are real contractors, some not,”Earnest said. “If they want to volunteer, we teach the skills as wego.”

None of the workers make a dime – in fact, they lose. The effortis an annual one, and entirely volunteer.

The carpenters are company presidents, managers, electriciansand salesmen. Most are men, some are women. Some use their vacationtime to travel and build churches, some just take a week withoutpay.

“It’s for the satisfaction of giving back,” Earnest said. “Weget a chance to help others and do God’s work. There will be peoplereached by this church, and we’ll be a small part of that.”

Earnest’s carpenter army began taking part in the Zion Hillproject unknowingly in August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina blewthrough Copiah County and changed the way Mississippians rememberMississippi.

Zion Hill Pastor Tom McCormick said 90 mph winds forced theissue of the construction. Before the storm, the church had alreadybeen thinking about, and desperately needing, more room to fix theproblem McCormick described as his flock “sitting on top of eachother.”

“The wind broke the rafters underneath the steeple,” he said.”We were looking at having to do some repairs, but we were alreadypressed for space and we knew that any fix would only be atemporary fix. So, we started praying about it.”

McCormick said the discussion of repair vs. build anew wasfinally decided when a Zion Hill deacon made the comment during ameeting that, “It looks like God had to use a storm to get us toopen our eyes.”

With the decision made, church leaders began to plan and,eventually, shop for help. Earnest’s chapter of Carpenters forChrist was waiting for Zion Hill at The Bridge, a Southern BaptistWeb site that lists requests and offers for volunteer assistancewithin the denomination. The first contact was made in September2007.

McCormick said Zion Hill participates in a similar carpentergroup through the Mississippi Baptist Men’s Ministry called NailBenders. That group receives requests through The Bridge, he said,so it was the church’s first investigation.

“We knew how people got in touch with us, so we took the sameapproach,” McCormick said. “We put our name out there on the Web,and Carpenters for Christ was one of the first groups thatcontacted us.”

The first week of June saw the Alabamians’ arrival. McCormickwill tell anyone who asks that the group was scooped up by theAlmighty and dropped on Zion Hill as a way of saying thank you.

“As a church, we’ve helped others do this very thing – forsomebody to come in and do it for us, that’s God saying, ‘Welldone’ for what (we’ve) done in the past,” he said. “God is sayingthat this church has been faithful in missions, and now we havemissions coming to us.”

McCormick said the new facility would help the church continueto grow – as it has done steadily for almost a decade – and spreadthe gospel.

“When folks come in here now, they’ll see there’s room forthem,” he said. “Hopefully, this will help us see more people cometo Christ – that’s the whole point. If this new building helps justone person get saved, then it’s worth it all.”

Jimmy Wooten, a member of Zion Hill for 50 years, said hischurch could have proceeded with the new building without the aidof Carpenters for Christ. But the project would have broken thechurch financially and stunted the growth of its programs.

“If we did, any extra money would be thin,” he said. “With theirhelp, we can keep and expand our programs, particularly our youthprogram. We have 60-or-so youth, and some aren’t even members -this will be the only church and the only Jesus some of ’em willever get.”

Earnest estimated the cash value of the free labor hiscarpenters provided for Zion Hill to be somewhere around $60,000.In Alabama, he said, the construction would cost about $5 persquare foot.

Now that Zion Hill Baptist Church’s new auditorium is blacked inand Carpenters for Christ gone back to the Yellowhammer State,another volunteer Baptist group from Tannehill, Ala., will come into take up where Earnest’s group left off.

Earnest and his carpenters had returned to their homes inAlabama by Thursday – tired, stiff, sunburned and a week behind intheir professional lives. But they took with them the sense offulfillment that can only come from raising up a church, like theSouth’s fathers have done for each other for more than acentury.

“We just have a good time,” Earnest said. “If I weren’t doingthis, I’d be sitting in an air-conditioned office. I’d rather bedoing this any day.”