Flood victim Roz Payne wasn’t looking for divine intervention. She just wanted help salvaging belongings from her waterlogged camp in North Hero.
But when Payne called Vermont’s 2-1-1 help line for flood assistance last week, the result was an unexpected — and unwanted — religious experience.
Payne expected that workers dressed in waders would show up to haul junked furniture and a few things worth saving — books, toys and perhaps a bottle of “something good to drink” — out of her swamped cabin. When she called 2-1-1, the operator told her someone would come out to inspect the damage from this year’s disastrous spring floods.
Instead, Payne got a Southern Baptist minister and his wife who didn’t help move a thing.
“They said, ‘Shall we have a circle?’ I didn’t know what that meant,” Payne says. “In our hippie days, the kids would hold hands and go ‘squeeeeeze,’ and you would squeeze the hand next to you and that was a circle. All of a sudden it was ‘Dear Jesus Christ, we want to call upon you to help us, blah blah blah.’ I don’t really remember, because as soon as I heard the ‘Jesus Christ,’ I blanked.”
The prayer encounter left Payne, a 70-year-old filmmaker and self-described “radical,” so peeved that she complained to U.S. Senators Bernie Sanders and Patrick Leahy.
“I do not have bad feelings about the preacher and his wife, but I thought they would help me save some of my things,” Payne says. “I do not think holding hands in a circle in the name of Jesus helped to save the contents of my house.”
The preacher and his wife were part of a small volunteer army of Southern Baptists who arrived two weeks ago to help flooded Vermonters. Southern Baptist Disaster Relief of New England, part of the national Southern Baptist Convention, has so far sent 40 volunteers and four equipment trailers to Vermont to help “mud out” basements, power wash moldy homes and assist weary flood victims in rebuilding. More Baptist teams will arrive soon from Virginia, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.
Using Williston’s Christ Memorial Church as a base of operations, the group is dispatching “assessment teams” all over Vermont in response to 2-1-1 calls for assistance. And, whenever possible, they’re praying with homeowners.
“Spiritual triage,” as they refer to it, is a big part of the mission of the 80,000-member Southern Baptist Disaster Relief, according to John Scoggins, director of the New England chapter. Each two-person assessment team has a chaplain ready to administer prayer if the person wants it, says Scoggins, himself a trained chaplain.
But in secular Vermont — ranked the least religious state in a 2009 Pew Center survey — the potential for culture clash runs high, as Payne’s experience shows. “I was furious. It was like a theater piece to me,” says Payne, a longtime activist who made radical films in the ’60s and ’70s and has amassed an archive of Black Panthers photos, interviews and film reels.
Scoggins says the Southern Baptist volunteers are “very careful not to overstep the spiritual push. We usually do say, ‘We are a church organization. Would you mind if we pray for you before we leave today?’ That’s about as preachy as we get.”
Just last week, in fact, Scoggins says a couple with a flooded camp in St. Albans rebuffed his offer for spiritual assistance. “This is not a force-feed situation, and we understand that,” he says.
Payne’s complaint also went to Vermont 2-1-1 and to the Vermont chapter of VOAD, or Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster, an umbrella group for organizations that assist in crises, such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army and the Southern Baptists.
Bill Elwell, the president of Vermont VOAD, is aware of Payne’s complaint and says he has spoken with a Southern Baptist volunteer coordinator “so they can try not to put someone in that situation again.” Elwell also explains why Payne, who lives in Richmond, didn’t get help salvaging her things: Her cabin is considered a second home, and those get low priority under the 2-1-1 triage system.
There’s been a huge demand for flood assistance. Since late April, Vermont’s 2-1-1 line has fielded more than 1000 calls for help, says 2-1-1 director MaryEllen Mendl. All calls are logged and forwarded to Vermont Emergency Management and VOAD, which in turn dispatch teams to assess damage and deploy helpers.
Mark Bosma, the public information officer for VEM, says that in disasters of this magnitude, volunteer organizations such as the Southern Baptists are critically important because they do “very unpleasant work, like mucking out basements and separating garbage.” For families who don’t qualify for Federal Emergency Management Agency relief, it could be the only help they get.
“We have to utilize — and we should utilize — as many volunteer organizations as we can to get people cleaned out, just in case they don’t get any funding,” Bosma says.
But are soggy Vermonters looking for holy healing? Scoggins says it’s “half and half” — some have welcomed prayer, others not so much. While the aim isn’t to convert nonbelievers, Scoggins says the Southern Baptists’ work can sometimes have that effect.
“If that’s sowing a seed that they might later think about,” Scoggins says, “that’s enough.”