Most people can’t say their town was simultaneously put on the map and almost wiped off it in the same day. Yet that’s just what happened to the tiny community of West, Texas, a little more than three years ago, when a local fertilizer plant exploded and shook the town with the force of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, destroying a good chunk of the town’s infrastructure.
April 17, 2013 will be forever remembered by the 2,800 or so residents of West as the day when their lives were turned completely upside down. Fifteen dead. Two hundred injured. Schools, apartments, businesses, a nursing home—all gone. Five hundred homes leveled to the ground.
Today, however, as the town reaches an important milestone of recovery—the destroyed schools are just now reopening—a pastor is looking back and seeing how God used the church to rebuild West from the ground up.
Referring to himself as the “Disaster Pastor,” First Baptist Church of West’s Senior Pastor John Crowder has played a unique role in helping his community recover. In addition to pastoring one of the larger churches in West, he also serves on the board of the West Ministerial Alliance and the West, Texas Foundation. After the explosion, his church became a hub of activity.
Crowder explained that while FEMA is set up for long-term recovery after a disaster, they are not equipped to handle short-term relief. Even secular organizations are bound to rules that keep them from being able to work as quickly and effectively as churches can, he said.
“It’s popular these days for people to put on spiritual airs and look down on organized religion,” Crowder continued. “But in a disaster, you better hope organized religion steps in. When people are hurting, the church responds.”
Crowder knew that First Baptist was just one entity and that the monumental task of rebuilding would take the collective effort of all the churches in the area. The fact that the West Ministerial Alliance was already in place gave him a starting point of unity among the pastors. However, it was not a formal non-profit group. In order to receive and distribute collective donations to those needing assistance, Crowder immediately began working to establish a 501(c)(3) called the West, Texas Foundation.
Even with the foundation in place, there were still challenges. “Under IRS rules, when someone donates to a 501(c)(3), you can’t just distribute that money across the board. You have to establish need,” he said. “We couldn’t just give money to victims, or they would have to claim it as income. We had to give it to the suppliers instead, which made it more complicated to manage.”
Moreover, the funds that were distributed through the foundation were only able to be given to community members for remaining needs after insurance and any government relief they received. That meant there was a real gap that had to be filled in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
This is where individual churches stepped in.
“Our churches are small. My church has a couple of hundred people in attendance on a Sunday, but we were able to funnel over one million dollars to victims. That didn’t come from just us, but from outside donations as well,” Crowder said, pointing to the Texas Baptist Men, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas as a few of the organizations that helped to support his own church’s efforts.