GATLINBURG, Tenn. — Christmas lights sparkle and a full moon illuminates the mountain peaks on this cold, predawn morning in the resort town of Gatlinburg. Few others are out and about so early.
The numerous pancake houses have yet to open for their belt-loosening customers.
But, thankfully, the Dunkin Donuts sign is on and the door unlocked.
A young man pours my much-anticipated first cup of coffee for the day. Since it’s just the two of us, I ask if he were here when the wildfires came to town.
He points out the window toward the nearby ridge where he witnessed the approaching flames. “I got out of here,” he said as a matter of fact.
Without melodrama, he added that the nearby place he rented for a home was among the many dwellings consumed.
“But that’s OK,” he said. “Because I was fine, and there are a lot of good people around here who help.”
Not everyone fared so well. Grief from human loss and the many challenges from material losses continue — and will for some time.
Latest statistics note that 14 persons died, 14,000 were evacuated and approximately $500 million in property damage resulted from the Nov. 28 blazes. Behind those numbers, however, are individual lives in need of love, comfort, assurance and practical assistance.
Yet, indeed, there are good people here with caring hearts and helpful hands, reaching out to those displaced and grieving.
Bill Black has been going nonstop since the deadly and devastating fires hit this popular resort community. For 35 years he has led Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries (SMRM) and has built trusting relationships with business owners, government leaders, visitors and many of the hourly-wage employees within the hospitality industry.
His heart is particular heavy for those working in hotels and restaurants whose meager housing and all belongings were wiped out by the wildfires. He is a trusted broker between those eager to give and those in desperate need.
Bill’s cell phone seemed glued to his ear as he moved about town pairing up needs with aid. He is known and trusted among the many workers from Honduras, who may be fearful of seeking formal help even though they lost their homes and all possessions.
“Housing is our most immediate need,” said Bill. “People are living on top of one another.”
While some workers have moved into lodging in adjacent Pigeon Forge and surrounding areas, that is a very short-term solution, he explained. Hotels and rental cabins need to be filled with tourists for the employees to have work. And much of the lodging is sold out for the holidays.
The fires spread so quickly that many of these working families had no time to gather their possessions, and in several cases lost their vehicles as well as their homes. So Bill was matching up 30 donated vehicles with persons having the greatest needs for transportation.
“This is going to be a fun phone call,” said Bill, a bright smile overcoming an intense look. There is a pause until his call is answered, and he exclaimed: “You’ve got a car!”
A body shop owner in middle Tennessee will drive the donated car over to Gatlinburg, he told the delighted person on the other end of the call. They arranged to meet at the courthouse at a designated time.
Like a juggler, Bill moves quickly to the next needed matching of resources with recipients. An out-of-state visitor to Gatlinburg’s First Baptist Church wanted to help six families who lost their homes. Bill helped make those connections.
Earlier that morning Bill met with a family that had lost a loved one in the fire. He offered pastoral care as well as some gift cards and furniture they needed.
“It goes in waves,” he said of the ministry opportunities rushing his way. Yet he sees each opportunity as more than a coincident.
“God nudges me,” he said. The wildfires, he added, have given way to fire of the Holy Spirit.
Pastor Eric Spivey of First Baptist Church of Cornelia, Ga., chairs the board of the non-profit resort ministries. He came up for three days to assist Bill — and has set up a fund to receive gifts.
Eric described his time in Gatlinburg as a profound spiritual experience in seeing how lives are changed in the midst of crisis.
“SMRM is continuing to meet the immediate needs of person after person impacted by the fire,” he said. “At the same time, we are continuing our ministry of revealing the presence of Jesus in the smoke to the people who live, work and play in the mountains.”
Rita Ponder of The Oaks Baptist Church in Lyons, Ga., wasted no time rallying support for the victims of the wildfires. Two days after the fires, the small congregation had collected $1,500 to send to the cause.
Learning from Bill of specific needs, Rita said church friends filled her pickup truck with new small appliances, brooms and other household items. She didn’t just make the delivery from southeast Georgia, but stayed for several days to assist with cleanup and the distribution of resources.
Rita joined two other longtime SMRM supporters. Leisel Burns of Cross Plains, Tenn., grew up in Honduras and was particularly helpful in communicating with the many displaced workers from her home country. Duffy Betterton, of Hendersonville, Tenn., who provides the SMRM web site, came to help as well.
“It’s about us loving people and sharing Christ’s love,” said Duffy. “It’s about relationships.”
Pastor Amy Mears of Glendale Baptist Church in Nashville has a long history with SMRM from her time as a student worker to currently serving on the board. She headed to the mountains after the fires burned out.
Her friend’s art-filled cabin in Rattlesnake Holler was gone. “I sighed, then wept a little,” Amy said. But then her thoughts turned to gratitude that her friend had gotten out safely.
Driving out of the holler Amy saw a large black bear moving across the charred mountainside. She paused to celebrate such life.
Amy’s experiences as a college student with the resort ministries, she said, taught her many skills — including leading worship in campgrounds, meeting strangers, talking (and especially listening) about faith, and much more.
“Now, Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries continues to teach me by allowing me to grieve with people whose lives have been devastated,” she said. “I trust the lessons that I learned here.”
Amy described the people she encountered in Gatlinburg as being “in active trauma” — seeking to integrate this tragedy into their lives.
“They startle easily,” she said. “They cry when a fire truck moves past. They stop mid-sentence and stare into the mountains. They are highly energetic one minute and sluggish the next.”
Understandably, some are weary of help, fearing they’ll be scammed in their vulnerability, said Amy.
“They require time, and quiet, and calm, and relentless presence,” she added. “That is the ministry best offered to hearts and minds and spirits, just now.”
“Ober Gatlinburg has a long-term relationship with Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries,” said Kent Anders, co-owner of the popular ski, snowboarding and skating destination with its highly visible aerial tramway that takes visitors from downtown to the mountaintop.
Bill Black is his close friend, he said, as well as a minister to his family and employees.
“He’s a great supporter of our foreign student workers,” said Kent, noting that Bill and his volunteers gather the international students for meals and celebrate the holidays with them.
Getting Gatlinburg back to normal operations is an important goal for all involved, he said. And with the exception of a few hotels and restaurants being treated for smoke damage, downtown Gatlinburg is alive and well, and eager to welcome visitors.
The ski slopes open this weekend, said Kent, and, as usual, Bill will up there on Sunday to lead worship in the snow. Earlier he will hold a service for Ober Gatlinburg employees.
The holidays are big times in Gatlinburg and the larger Smoky Mountains region. Familiar festivities will be in full swing.
Bill Black and others with Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries will be in on the celebrations as well. Yet they will continue to see the charred hillsides and the broken hearts that need more than just words of cheer.
There is hope, however. As Kent said to his longtime friend Bill with an embrace: “We’re going to make it, buddy.”
Many organizations are aiding the relief efforts in Gatlinburg including the American Red Cross and Dolly Parton’s “My People Fund” that has raised $9 million for affected families and began distribution today.
On a smaller, yet very personal level, SMRM provides an opportunity to help in both short and longer-term ways. The need for volunteer groups to help with rebuilding efforts will come early next year. (Check the website for upcoming details.)
Immediate needs may be found now on the Smoky Mountain Resort Ministries web site (smrm.org). Financial gifts are most helpful because they are most flexible, said Bill. He can assist with emergency housing needs and provide gift cards for food and supplies.
Those wanting to send specific items should check the listing on the web site. Clothes are not needed. The emphasis is on new kitchen appliances, vacuum cleaners and other household items.
And one more thing, Bill added: Come to Gatlinburg — and “tip extravagantly!”
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