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Churches Respond As Gatlinburg Is Left Smoldering

As the popular East Tennessee tourist destination is left with mass destruction by wildfires, churches and ministries respond.
Emily Houser has seen her share of pain in her ministry as president of the rural Smoky Mountain Dream Center. Nothing could prepare her, however, for the sights she saw on the ground in Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the surrounding communities.

“There are children here terrified by every siren they hear,” she recounts. “There are those who ran literally for miles on-foot to escape the flames.”

As Houser spoke to PE News, she warned the call could quickly be disconnected, “The cell towers have been burned, so communication here is spotty.”

Emergency officials continue to block access to the city, but news reports indicate mass destruction—10 deaths and some 700 buildings destroyed or damaged.

Many fear the worst is yet to come. Kendall Hays, husband of local Assemblies of God pastor Fatima Hays, says they have not yet been given access to see if their church, Iglesia Cristiana Siloe, is damaged. The pastor’s home has become a makeshift shelter for displaced members of their church. As for the motel he owns, Hays says, “We don’t even know if it’s still standing.”

Manuel Vazquez, pastor of Gatlinburg’s Jesus Es La Puerta (AG), knows their church building is fine, but is concerned for the members of his church. “I know many of them have had apartments and goods lost.”

Down the road in Pigeon Forge, Pastor Miguel Guerra of Iglesia Nuevo Esperanza (AG), describes a chaotic scene. “We’ve been on lockdown. Curfew is from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. in Gatlinburg. We hear helicopters overhead dropping down water. Lots of noise.”

Many members of Guerra’s church have opened their homes to their evacuated neighbors from Gatlinburg. Other members have taken to the streets to help distribute items such as bottled water and energy bars to emergency personnel.

Meanwhile, Convoy of Hope is moving in to offer assistance in a major way. A tractor-trailer loaded with 36 pallets of relief supplies is being delivered in both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg.

Convoy of Hope spokesperson Jeff Nene states, “We have been in contact with both state and local officials, as well as pastors and the Tennessee Assemblies of God District. Disaster Services team members will be driving this load and working with the local officials to provide support in setting up distributions.”

As one of a few ministering in the affected area, Houser, who is also a chaplaincy candidate with AG U.S. Missions, is focused on the long-term. “We want to be there for them when the news trucks leave and the smoke clears.” She is also working with city officials in neighboring Cocke County to reach the needs of the many who have fled their homes.

Mark Forrester

Mark Forrester is the senior director of Public Relations and Communications for the General Council of the Assemblies of God. He is a graduate of Lee University and the Assemblies of God Theological Seminary. He is general editor of Trending Up: Social Media Strategies for Today's Church. Mark and his wife, Janine, have two children and live in Springfield, Missouri.