The carillon of the First Baptist Church in Fremont, Neb. plays every hour on the hour during the day. Chimed music gently floats over the neighboring area and reminds one of a time gone by, when people dressed in their Sunday best strolled down the brick streets lined with big, two-story American Craftsman and Victorian-styled homes nearby, on their way to morning services.
The 150-year-old church sits on the corner of C and Fifth Streets and within sight of the Episcopalian, Lutheran and the former Catholic churches. These churches likely were built about the same time. First Baptist’s founders met and started their church in 1869, just two years after Nebraska became a state, in a private residence down the street that still stands and is the second oldest structure in Fremont today. Their current red brick Romanesque Revival style church building is their third and was dedicated in 1923.
Inside, the sanctuary is dignified but simple with massive dark wood beams arching up to the ceiling above the two sections of wooden, upholstered pews divided by a center aisle leading up to the altar area. The minister’s pulpit and choir director’s podium stand on either side of the stepped-up altar area with the choir pews directly behind the massive wooden altar with a large blue stained glass window rising behind in the background. The church still has its pipe organ too with the banks of pipes hidden behind arched screens on either side of the altar area. Crisscrossed leaded stained glass windows on either side of the sanctuary flood the interior with golden light when the sun shines through.
But the heart and soul of this small town church isn’t its brick and mortar building, it’s the people. During the past two months, have been one of the most generous and helpful to those in Fremont and the even smaller, surrounding towns that are still trying to recover from the massive flooding in mid-March. This happened when the two rivers in the area, the Platte and the Elkhorn, overflowed after sudden warm weather melted piles of a recent snowstorm and rainstorm after rainstorm dropped more water than the land or rivers could absorb. The area was literally turned into islands, cut off from one another and outside aid by washed out highways and interstates that are just now re-opening.
Led by its minister, my brother, Richard, his church has provided assistance to 30 outlying communities and “scores and scores of people.” The church’s family center was turned into a major distribution center and filled with supplies once they could be delivered. Financial aid, to purchase essentials and food or to replace damaged hot water heaters or propane tanks that had been washed away, was given to those who needed it. On a recent visit, I went with Richard to give gift cards for these items to three flood victims who were grateful to tears.
We also spent part of an afternoon handing out bottles of energy drinks, packages of athletic socks, cans of vegetables and soups, 5 pound bags of rice and boxes of nutrition bars to those who lived in one of the hardest hit areas of Fremont. These were largely low income Hispanic families whose mobile homes were livable but badly damaged. Five families took refuge in a local Hispanic church, staying in the basement until they were reassured that it was okay to return to their home.
One from their community, Maricella, began the relief effort for these people by giving out donations from a truck at a corner Mexican food market in town. When Richard and his church discovered this, they stepped in and offered to contribute supplies and people to help.
With help from her organizational skills, they put together a plan and a place for people to safely come to get what they needed. “We don’t ask where they come from or if they are citizens, or church members or what political party they belong to. If they need help, we help them,” says Richard.
During my brief visit, Richard drove me around the areas so I could see the impact the flood had made. In the tiny town of Winslow, where 81 people once lived,now only three households are there. They still have no running water and electricity, if they have it, is created by portable generators. One couple is living in their garage. A giant mountain of ruined possessions, including appliances and furniture is piled along one of dirt streets awaiting someone to come pick it up. As we were surveying it, one of the remaining residents walked up and tossed something else onto the pile. Richard stopped to talk with him.
The man, probably in his late 30s, told him that his house had been deemed ‘livable’ by diaster authorities but that he had four inches of mud in his basement. Insurance would cover some of the damage but not all. He was lucky, in some cases, insurance companies are refusing claims because the water came into the house through the basements, not the ground floors, my brother explained. Richard wrote a name and number on his business card and handed it to the man telling him to contact them for assistance. The man’s eyes teared up as he thanked us and we said good-bye.
These are the kind of interactions that have occurred over and over as Richard and his church have encountered flood victims. People needing help, not knowing where to find it in many cases or denied aid for various reasons from outside government and disaster relief agencies, grateful to learn that this little Fremont church is offering to come to their aid however they can.
Donations have come from the church’s national association and through many outside individuals in addition to the church members themselves. The last of the relief funds was used for the three gift cards. There’s still a Donate button that takes you to PayPal on the church website. If more donations come in, they will provide whatever aid remains to done, not asking for proof of insurance, or citizenship or political affiliation or church membership.
The Sunday I was in town, my brother delivered a message to his congregation that included the story of Jesus feeding the multitude 5,000 with five loaves and two fishes. I’m sure that he chose to relate that particular story because it illustrated so well what his little church itself has done recently to respond to the flood victims. They have made a difference in the lives most in need and have made their funds and supplies go further than anyone would have thought.