HAVELOCK, N.C.—Linda Mills, 70, has served others in her community for 42 years by hosting Sunday lunches from her cozy home in Havelock, N.C. Her humble service has earned her the affectionate moniker "Mama Mills."
It all started when her husband Harold, who passed away 15 years ago, said "Mama, I'm bringing a little, starvin' Marine home," Mills said.
From then on, her longtime ministry grew and became known as "The Lunch Bunch." She faithfully provided a home-cooked meal and a "home away from home" welcoming many young soldiers and others "who needed some extra love," she said. On Sundays, she cooked lunch for 20 to 40 guests usually. On one Easter, she fed 74. Most of her guests are young U.S. Marines from nearby U.S. Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C.
But the widow's popular after-church meals came to a halt in September when her home took on floodwater caused by Hurricane Florence. Mills, a member of First Baptist Church of Havelock, stood on higher ground on her neighbor's porch and watched the water rise up her yard and feared for the worst. Her neighborhood was flooded when Joe's Branch Creek overflowed from the Neuse River's storm surge.
Dressed in high boots the next morning, Mills surveyed the damage done overnight. While only the crawl space of her home was flooded, she found her barn out back, which housed three freezers and two refrigerators full of food for her ministry, had taken on nearly four feet of floodwater.
"When I saw those freezers turned upside down and food everywhere, I thought that maybe God was closing a door (to the ministry)," she said.
"All my provisions were taken away from me and I wondered, 'Lord, is it time for me to do something else?'"
But through help from Southern Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers and other friends, she realized that maybe God was opening doors instead.
When SBDR volunteer Bill Gore of Bethel Baptist Church in Boone, N.C., showed up to treat mold underneath her home, he said he knew Mills was a special person. Gore and many other SBDR volunteers were meeting job requests out of Temple Baptist Church in New Bern, one of several SBDR command sites.
"Her loving demeanor towards a stranger stuck out," Gore said.
When Mama Mills started sharing her story of how the lunch bunch began and showed him all the photographs over the years of people who had come on Sundays, he encouraged Mills to continue her service.
Gore, a longtime SBDR volunteer, said he was impressed by her care for others.
"This just absolutely amazed me," he said.
Mills shared with him how God had always provided for her needs in the past. One time when she was planning to serve meatless spaghetti, two friends showed up with 30 pounds of chicken.
"Of course, we had fried chicken the next day," she noted.
Gore and SBDR volunteer Richard Browning of Rock Spring Baptist Church in Louisburg, N.C., visited and prayed with Mills and gave her a signed Bible before they left. They encouraged her to go on with the ministry.
"I'm praying the Lord just builds this better and bigger than it was before," Gore said.
One of the Marines who comes to the lunch bunch has already donated a used refrigerator to Mama Mills.
Mills says she is looking forward to preparing her first lunch since the storm on Sunday, Oct. 28. She plans on serving lasagna, salad, homemade yeast rolls—her specialty—and homemade cheesecake and other desserts for close to 50 guests.
Many friends have also encouraged her to keep the ministry going, she said.
"Oh no, these guys need you to be a Mom away from home," they would tell her.
Mills says she is confident that God wants her to continue. "I know that prayer is going out for me and that this is what I'm supposed to do. He knows where my heart is. He knows what I love to do. It's all in His hands."
Mills hopes others will see her ministry and will realize that they can do the same thing in their community.
"Take in someone or a family and open their home to make it a home away from home," she said. "Look for someone that needs that extra love."
SBDR volunteers have continued serving survivors of Hurricanes Florence and Michael. In North and South Carolina, the response has moved to a focus on recovery work while Florida and Georgia continue to provide both meals and recovery work for survivors.
In response to Hurricane Florence, SBDR has provided more than 1.1 million meals, distributed nearly 1,400 crisis buckets, completed more than 600 flood clean-up jobs and provided chainsaw work for 1,182 homeowners.
In Florida, thousands of people were still without power last week, and SBDR teams have set up seven feeding sites and eight clean-up and recovery sites in Florida. In Georgia, SBDR teams have set up three sites that include both feeding and recovery and two sites that are focused on recovery.
Kentucky Baptist Disaster Relief teams were among those working in Southwest Georgia this past week. "They have completed around 100 chainsaw jobs, served over 14,000 meals, and tarped about 25 roofs. Our chaplains also have been active," reported Coy Webb, KBDR director.
All of the approximately 50 Kentucky volunteers were scheduled to return home on Sunday, Oct. 28, but more may need to be deployed, Webb added.
In total, Southern Baptists have provided more than 300,000 meals to survivors of Hurricane Michael. They have provided more than 400 chainsaw and yard cleanup jobs as well as more than 100 temporary roofing jobs.
So far, Southern Baptists have witnessed 174 professions of faith as they have ministered to people in the aftermath of these tragic storms. (BP/WR)