A fire that unexpectedly left hundreds in a small town unemployed could have easily resulted in a collective sense of utter despair, but a recent disaster in Booneville, Arkansas, has brought the town's faith community together in a powerful way to share hope with their neighbors.
On Easter Sunday a welding accident caused a fire at the Cargill meat packing plant that quickly spread and destroyed the building. No one was hurt, but an ammonia leak scare led to a temporary evacuation of nearby homes.
The plant had employed around 800 people, about half of them Booneville residents. In a small town of 4,000, the fire's impact has threatened the livelihood of the entire community, but especially those suddenly without an income.
The day after the fire, Pastor Darrell Frost of First Assembly of God in Booneville held a meeting with church staff and several members to determine how they could best help the Cargill employees.
On Tuesday morning they met with the local ministerial fellowship and representatives from Cargill and aid organizations. Although Booneville churches had worked together before, the fire created greater need than ever to combine efforts to share God's love with their neighbors. The ministerial fellowship decided the best avenue for helping would be the creation of a resource center.
And from there, God seemed to take over. That afternoon, the fellowship received approval to use an empty former medical clinic - for free. Plans for the center were full-speed ahead. Wednesday morning the electricity and water were turned on and the volunteers began to clean. Thursday, food donations arrived and the phones were turned on. And on Friday morning, five days after the fire, the South Logan County Family Resource Center opened its doors to the public and assisted 80 people on that first day.
"To me that's just a God thing," says First Assembly's children's pastor Melissa Davis, who has been working at the center. "It happened on a Sunday and five days later we've got this huge resource center."
Among the resource center's services, volunteers from several local churches are providing help with tax planning, job placement assistance, and resume development and printing. Each person that comes to the center also receives a box of food, donated from those inside and outside the community, including Convoy of Hope, which provided a truckload of food, water, PowerAde and household goods.
"One of the first things that I established was that when each person came in the door on Friday morning, we wanted to put something in their hands," says Frost. "We give boxes of food to everybody, whether they need it or not. It may just be one meal they don't have to worry about buying."
Roger Coffman, who attends First Assembly, helped coordinate a much-needed job fair, April 3-4. He says he originally hoped that 20 companies would get involved, but was overwhelmed by the enthusiastic participation of approximately 50 companies, each with job openings.
Prior to the event, Coffman said, "I think everybody who comes to the fair and wants a job will be able to find one. It's been a blessing of God."
More than a week after the fire Davis says many of the people coming into the center were still in a state of shock. The future is uncertain for former Cargill employees, but with the help of the resource center's financial counseling, job fair and other services, people will be able to get back on their feet much sooner.
Along with the tangible help, volunteers provide spiritual encouragement. Volunteers from local churches offer to pray with everyone who comes through the center's doors and almost everyone agrees.
"I've had ladies come in and they are just so afraid because they don't know what the future holds for them," Davis describes. "You pray for them and tears just stream down their face."
"People have been touched and most of these folks were not church folks," says Coffman. "The factory was open seven days a week, so a lot of the people were working at least two Sundays a month."
The First Assembly church family and other resource center volunteers say they are committed to helping the Cargill employees as long as there is need.
"I got to pray with people who thought this was a one time thing," Davis says, "and I told them, no, we're in for the long haul because you're in for the long haul. We're going to try to be here as long as we can."
The hospital that owns the former medical clinic is allowing the ministerial fellowship to use the building free of charge for 180 days, but Pastor Frost believes God is going to open the doors for the resource center to continue long after the Cargill disaster.
"I truly believe people are seeing the love of God in action and that's really what the bottom line is," says Frost. "We want to keep going."
As former Cargill employees' needs are ongoing, South Logan County Family Resource Center is still receiving donations. For more information about First Assembly, see http://ag-church.com/.
Editor's note: As of Wednesday, April 9, Cargill had still not made a decision as to whether or not they would rebuild the Booneville plant. However, city and state officials have offered the company incentives for rebuilding, including a 35-acre plot next to the old plant and tax breaks.