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Local pastor turns attention to Japanese relief efforts

By Adam Troxtell
On April 12, 2011


Dr. John LaNoue has been an interim pastor at the First Baptist Church in Commerce for about a week, but for the past few months he has spent his time serving in a completely different environment: the earthquake and tsunami hit regions of Japan.

LaNoue, who received his doctorate from Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary in San Francisco, works with Texas Baptist Men disaster relief, an organization that provides aid workers and resources to areas of the world that are in desperate need of aid.

Japan is not the first disaster area LaNoue has been to. He went to Sri Lanka after a devastating tsunami hit the region in 2004 and was the first American since 1953 to travel across North Korea while providing food aid there.  Something about the Japanese natural disaster made it stand out.

"When it hit, I recognized the tragedy because I've worked in earthquakes before, and I've also worked in tsunamis," he said. "Then when they added the nuclear aspect to it, I knew that was going to be real bad. The news out of any disaster can't give you the full picture because the people giving the news don't know the full picture. But, I remember Chernobyl; I remember Three-mile Island, and I knew when you go to messing with nuclear radiation you are in bad trouble."

LaNoue said he and Texas Baptist Men work like a supplier, providing resources to damaged areas through a central distribution point: the local church.

"My job over there was to find what ministries were needed that local churches could handle," he said. "People forget the resource of a church in a disaster. The stuff we normally use in a regular church life so often can really help."

His start in disaster relief came in 1967 when he was working as a campus minister at four East Texas universities. A group of summer missionaries needed a mobile clinic. Using an old school bus, he built a medical and dental service vehicle in his backyard. This was the start of a new trade for LaNoue, as he went on to build a number of service vehicles for disaster relief efforts.

"That's why people consider him the father of disaster relief," Michael Ryer, the minister of education and music at the First Baptist Church, said. "They've got a chainsaw ministry where they have a trailer full of chainsaw equipment and a team that goes in and cuts branches and limbs for people that can't do it themselves. And it's all for no cost; just because God loves them and we want to share that love. "

Some years later when he was working at Texas Baptist Men and the organization decided to start disaster relief efforts, LaNoue built them an operations unit.

 "They asked me to build a unit that would house all the things they needed;" he said, "a kitchen, a PR room with video monitors, and a radio room since we use HAM radio an awful lot. I built the first unit for that in my backyard."

LaNoue said it was difficult at first to begin the flow of aid to Japan, because of its status as a developed nation.

"We knew there is always a reluctance at first to have outside help come in," he said. "But as the actual damage begins to surface, it gets bigger and bigger. Different aid groups have been approaching the Japanese government and they're real conscious about taking care of their people, so your aid is filtered pretty well to make sure you are a good group and you are doing the right thing. That has slowed down a lot of our reaction time to it."

Now relief workers have been able to establish a presence in the country, and Texas Baptist Men has found their main area of work. While refugees are pouring into shelters, it is the un-displaced people still in their homes that LaNoue said were the most in need. These are the people that have no electricity, water or gas.

"We discovered that if we could get supplies to the local churches in the areas where the un-displaced were," he said, "then they knew who in their neighborhood was really needy and they could be the distribution point. It didn't matter what denomination, just a local church."

While he will now be spending the foreseeable future operating as interim pastor at the FBC in Commerce, LaNoue said he continues to be the facilitator between those who wish to help those in disaster areas and those who are in need.

"In times like these, the churches always want to do something; they just don't know what," he said. "Our job is to help them know what to do."

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