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by Jeff Bartz

At 8 p.m. on December 23 my church, Grace Baptist Church, Batavia, New York, was designated a storm shelter for stranded travelers seeking refuge from powerful Winter Storm Elliott (a.k.a. “the Buffalo Blizzard”). At the peak of the storm, in the early morning hours of Christmas Eve, my church became home to over 100 people of diverse nationalities, languages, and backgrounds, as well as three dogs, a cat, and a ball python. Most of these people sheltered in place with us until the travel ban lifted on Christmas Day.

A storm shelter. What a beautiful picture of Grace Baptist Church. A refuge for worn and worried travelers harassed and battered by the storms of life. Open to all, from all walks of life. A place where people find hope and salvation. A place they can go to be safe, warmed, and fed. A place where they find belonging and the deep relationships found only among fellow sufferers.

Our guests were grateful to be alive, especially upon hearing the death toll rise as the blizzard raged. Many expressed great appreciation for our church family and friends’ hospitality and generosity. These displaced people from all over the world were overcome with emotion as Grace Baptist Church, the City of Batavia, and Genesee County came together to meet their needs. Our community showed up with food, cots, blankets, pillows, toiletries, and a warmth of hospitality that many of these guests had never before experienced. They thanked us for saving their lives and their babies’ lives.

No one planned or wanted to be stranded on Christmas. But we were glad to be there and happy to be with strangers who became friends. Because of the travel ban, we canceled church services for Christmas morning, but with so many people stranded at Grace Baptist on Christmas, it was only fitting that we celebrate Christmas together. So we gathered in the church’s sanctuary and sang the timeless, treasured carols we all know and love. We read Luke 1 and reflected on God’s love for us in sending His Son, Jesus, to save us from our sin. And we pondered how God shows through the Christmas story that He is mindful of us, mighty over us, and merciful to us. We were experiencing those truths while we weathered the blizzard in the warm safety of our Christmas storm shelter.

Immediately after the service, we learned that the travel ban had been lifted. Some didn’t want to leave. We hugged each other, cried together, exchanged contact information, and stuck around and took pictures together. We didn’t want what many called “the best Christmas ever” to end!

Jeff Bartz is associate pastor of Grace Baptist Church, Batavia, New York, and a Regular Baptist chaplain with the Air National Guard. He will be lead pastor of Grace Baptist when Pastor Don Shirk retires from the pastorate on February 1.