As Hurricane Florence rolled like a slow-motion tsunami across Eastern North Carolina in mid-September, a group of tacticians gathered in a sort of severe-weather war room at the state’s Emergency Operations Center in Raleigh.
They were generals mustering for battle, except that instead of amassing tanks and ground troops, they were plotting where to place water rescue teams, utility crews and road workers ahead of the catastrophic flooding they knew was coming.
Most of these planners lead people who get paid to go out on emergencies. But Richard Brunson, executive director of the N.C. Baptists on Mission, also was in this room off Blue Ridge Road. His army of relief workers is nearly all-volunteer. Before, during and long after a natural disaster, they go at their own expense — and their own risk — to offer aid to victims.
Because of their speed, skill, efficiency and commitment, they have become a critical component of disaster response in North Carolina and around the country.
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“Without them, we’d be struggling,” said Mike Sprayberry, director of the N.C. Division of Emergency Management.
Brunson, 61, is a finalist for The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year, which recognizes North Carolina residents who have made lasting and significant contributions in the state and beyond. For the first time, four finalists will be honored. The winner will be announced later this week.
Brunson’s group has its roots in the “Brotherhood” of the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, which once provided mission training for boys and men at local Baptist churches. In the 1970s, the Brotherhood expanded its definition of mission work to include disaster relief, and changed its name to the N.C. Baptist Men. Volunteers spent several years converting a tractor-trailer into the group’s first mobile kitchen, which was deployed on its inaugural disaster-response mission to Red Springs in March 1984 when a tornado smashed that town.
To acknowledge its reliance on women, the group now goes by the name N.C. Baptists on Mission, and its volunteers serve all over the world.
Brunson grew up in mission work. He was born in Georgia while his father was pastor of a small Baptist church in a town outside Savannah, but when he was still a baby, his parents accepted posts as missionaries in Malaysia. The family returned to the United States when Brunson was 10, settling in Concord.
Brunson graduated from Northwest Cabarrus High School in 1975. He earned an education degree from Baptist-affiliated Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs in 1979.
He taught sixth grade in Concord for one year, but found he preferred the outdoor classrooms of the Baptists’ Camp Caraway, west of Asheboro, and the denomination’s Christian High Adventure leadership training programs in Mount Rogers, Va., and Colorado.
After a couple of years in Colorado, he came back to North Carolina to enter the Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary in Wake Forest, where he graduated in 1986 with a master’s of divinity.
Rather than take his father’s path as a preacher, Brunson said, “Different doors were opening for me.”
He joined the Baptist Men full-time in 1987. Five years later, he became executive director.
An army of volunteers
The group, housed with the Baptist State Convention in Cary, has only 18 regular full-time employees, but during Brunson’s tenure, has trained more than 15,000 volunteers. Immediately after a major disaster, hundreds of people are in the field at any given time wearing the group’s bright yellow T-shirts, the color of sunshine after a storm.
The group is guided by three goals derived from Biblical commands: recognize human needs; educate people about their spiritual growth, gifts and abilities; and motivate them to use those gifts in the service of others.
Volunteers don’t have to be Baptist. They don’t even need to have a religious faith. But for Brunson, faith and service are intertwined.
“God is a good god, and I think God wants us to be working for good in other people’s lives,” Brunson said. Taking a line from the inspirational poem by Saint Teresa of Avila called “Christ Has No Body,” Brunson said, “He wants us to be his hands and feet.”
The first need targeted by Baptist volunteers was hunger, starting with the several thousand meals it served in Red Springs in ‘84 while the town’s power lines lay knotted on the ground. Hurricanes, including Hugo in 1989, Andrew in ‘92, Fran in ‘96, Floyd in ‘99, Matthew in 2016 and Florence this year — along with fires in the U.S. and an earthquake in Haiti — have given the group hundreds of thousands of hours of hands-on training and have shown leaders ways to streamline operations.
Now, teams can mobilize alone or with other nonprofits with the efficiency of a strike force. After Florence this fall, Baptist mobile kitchens were serving hot meals in some places before flood waters had receded.
Under Brunson’s leadership, the group has expanded its ability to feed large numbers of people — it now has kitchens that can serve 30,000 meals a day — while adding disaster-relief services for victims who lack insurance and other resources to help them start their lives again.
Chainsaw teams can clear storm-tossed limbs from homes so that tarping teams can put temporary covers on roofs to protect from further damage. Mud-out teams shovel the sediment deposited by creeks and rivers onto people’s floors by flooding, and tear-out teams cut down damaged drywall and rip up warped flooring so soaked framing can dry.
And then, the rebuild teams put it all back together.
‘He sees the big picture’
While disaster relief and recovery have become the Baptists on Mission’s trademark, the group also has 16 other missions, a mix of outreach and denominational work to which Brunson brings his same calm, thoughtful management style.
“He sees the big picture. He is a visionary, I guess you would say,” said Lynn Tharrington, administrative assistant for Baptists on Mission. Tharrington has worked for the organization for 48 years.
“He not only has the vision, but he has a plan and he knows how to delegate and to get the work done,” Tharrington said. “He is a good listener, but he is decisive. I think he is just motivated and driven to help people in need.”
Over the years, Baptists in other states have formed similar mission groups, and they coordinate their efforts together. As Florence approached, Brunson marked an oversized laminated North Carolina map that hangs in a conference room near his office with assignments for seven teams from out of state. The Virginia team staged in Washington, N.C., while Florida went to Whiteville. Alabama was in Hope Mills, Mississippi in Bolivia, Missouri in Wallace. During and after the storm, the Baptists had 10 mobile kitchens that served more than 1 million meals.
Once an emergency is over, Brunson and his staff and volunteers regroup. In some cases, they pack up and go home. After events like Florence, they dig in for the long haul — a two- to three-year-long rebuilding effort.
N.C. Baptists on Mission gets its $1.5 million annual operating budget from the Baptist State Convention, and receives donations for specific disasters such as Hurricanes Matthew and Florence. Brunson says he has never wanted — or needed — to pay anyone for fundraising.
“I’ve found that if you’re faithful, God provides,” he said.
The biggest challenge Brunson often faces is sustaining the work with volunteers, whose interests and ability to serve change over time. Baptists on Mission is constantly training new volunteers, and Brunson says he is always looking for ways to challenge and engage people. He uses social media to share what the group is doing and invites others to join.
A couple of times a week, Brunson drives from the Cary office to a site where volunteers are at work, fielding calls from team leaders as he goes. From these visits, Brunson said he learns what is working and what needs tweaking.
He knows, he says, he has to make it easy for people to join the effort, whether for a day, a weekend or several weeks a year. After Hurricane Matthew, the Baptists bought an empty sandwich-making plant in Lumberton and turned it into a base for operations, which the group is also using for Florence recovery efforts.
Dozens of volunteers can bunk and eat there, saving them the cost and hassle of hotel rooms and fast-food meals. Because of the widespread long-term rebuilding needs left by Florence, Brunson and his staff are now looking for similar sites in three other locations.
For faith-based groups such as this one, disaster recovery is only partly about the physical work of repairing the ways water, wind, fire or earthquake has redrawn the landscape of a person’s life. As efficient as volunteers are at making hot meals and swinging hammers, they must remember, Brunson says, that the goal is not the project, but the people. Sometimes what disaster victims need most is a sympathetic ear and a promise that things will get better.
“The hope that they’re bringing,” Brunson said, “may be the most important part.”
Richard William Brunson
Hometown: Savannah, Ga., now lives in Garner.
Family: Wife, Lesley; Three children.
Education: Education degree from Gardner-Webb University, 1979; Master of Divinity, Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, 1986.
Accomplishments: During his 26 years as executive director of the N.C. Baptists on Mission, the organization has trained more than 15,000 volunteers who have responded to hundreds of disasters around the world. So far since Hurricane Matthew in 2016, N.C. Baptists are working on or have completed more than 500 N.C. home rebuilds. The group plans to rebuild at least 2,000 homes damaged by Hurricane Florence in the next two to three years.
Tar Heel of the Year
This year, there are four finalists, revealed in alphabetical order, with the Tar Heel of the Year to be announced Saturday at newsobserver.com. Here is who has been announced so far:
▪ Richard Brunson: The executive director of NC Baptists on Mission since 1992 has made the organization’s volunteers a critical component of disaster response in North Carolina and around the country, including hurricanes and earthquakes.
▪ Rhiannon Giddens: The musician is one of the most acclaimed to come out of North Carolina. Her accolades include a Grammy Award and a 2017 MacArthur Foundation “Genius Grant” fellowship. She focuses on the under-represented, under-sung contributions of African-Americans to the cultural canon.
▪ Jaki Shelton Green: Green is the North Carolina Poet Laureate, the state’s first African-American to hold the role. She has made a career out of reaching out to diverse, under-represented communities to find the poetry there.
More from the series
The News & Observer’s Tar Heel of the Year
The News & Observer recognizes North Carolina residents who have made significant contributions in the last year and beyond. This year, we asked readers to tell us about people who have made a difference in our state. Here are our stories.