Members of CrossBridge Church in Madeira Beach pose in front of their bus, which takes them to disaster zones all over the country. From left are Pastor Rick Cowley, Leslie Cowley, Jan Lancto, Ken Osborne, Sheila Leyva, Charlie Cook and Chris Crisco.
MADEIRA BEACH – Hurricane Irma brought it all close to home. No longer do Pinellas County residents have the luxury of looking at a disaster on TV and reveling in the fact that it was somewhere else. Now it is here, a harsh reality.
That was never the case with a small church group in Madeira Beach. The 200 or so members of the CrossBridge Church on 153rd Avenue have been seeking out disasters for several years so they can pitch in to help. For them it isn’t enough just to say a few prayers or send money. They have to get more involved than that.
Rick Cowley is the pastor of the church and says his mission in life is disaster recovery.
“It was actually born out of Katrina,” he said. “I was in Arizona at the time. Everybody was raising money but nobody was going to help so I decided to take a team to help.”
He hasn’t stopped since. At one point his church adopted the community of Long Beach, Mississippi, after a hurricane struck there.
“We shuttled teams back and forth for the year,” he said. “If you have ever been on the scene after a Category 5 hurricane hit you too would have a passion for helping.”
Cowley, whose group was preparing another trip to go help the flood victims in Houston, says they now will likely stay in Florida and help closer to home.
“We are still assessing the situation,” he said. “We could go to Naples or Miami. I’ve already cancelled the hotel reservations for the trip out west; it just makes sense for us to stay here.”
Sarah Michaels is a church member who has watched her congregation members go on trips. She says it is at great personal sacrifice that they do this.
“They pay their own money to go,” she said. “They take time off work without pay. They are an impressive group of people.”
Michaels says the need seems endless.
“Once every two months they leave on a Saturday and get there on Sunday,” she said. “They are all volunteers and without volunteers it doesn’t work. These people are absolutely remarkable but they are getting worn out, it is too tiring.”
Yet the group soldiers on. Pastor Cowley says the incentive is easy.
“All it takes is to see one homeowner buried then the team moves in and lifts their spirits and you realize you have to do this more and more and more,” he said.
Cowley estimates he has taken 40 disaster relief trips since 2005. Since then he has connected with a group called Samaritan’s Purse, an organization run by Franklin Graham, Billy Graham’s son.
Cowley says Samaritan’s Purse directs relief groups such as those at CrossBridge to a location. All the church has to do is get the volunteers there, everything else is looked after.
“They provide us with food and shelter and the tools for the job,” he said. “They send teams into the field every single day.”
Cowley says going to a place like Houston to see the floods is something most people will never forget.
“It is like a war zone,” he said. “This is what surprises people, it is not like anything you have ever seen. There is so much water and then you realize with every roof you see that’s a family, that’s a life.”
There is a joy in helping says Cowley. In Houston, the group went into a flooded house, stripped away the drywall, prevented mold from forming and got the home ready to be rebuilt by the homeowner.
“The majority of them are not in flood zones,” he said. “Not only can they lose their house, they lose its contents. We can do one house at a time; a team of 25 can do two houses a day. If we stay for six days then there are a dozen houses that are saved which means that many people are thrilled and on the road to recovery.”
CrossBridge Church doesn’t ask for much. It recently bought not one, but two used buses to move their people to disaster zones.