After the Storm
How two churches worked together to bring relief to southwest Florida.
with Matt Keller and Randy Bezet
It was January of 2003, and several months before, Matt Keller and his wife, Sarah, had launched Next Level Church in a movie theater in Fort Myers, Florida, with 35 people. They were alone and struggling when another church leader passed along contact information for Randy Bezet, who had planted Bayside Community Church 90 miles north of them in Bradenton, and one of the first ARC plants in the country.
The three-hour lunch that resulted from the connection led to a life-giving relationship between the two pastors and churches—one that would become even more meaningful nearly 20 years later when Hurricane Ian slammed into the Gulf Coast of Florida on September 23, 2022. The deadliest hurricane to hit Florida since 1935, Ian took a toll on Fort Myers, killing 60 people in Lee County alone and destroying countless homes and businesses.
Although Bradenton did not receive a direct hit from Ian, the city faced outages and damage. Once Bayside’s team ensured the safety of its congregation, the church sprang into action to join Next Level in caring for the devastated Fort Myers community. AVAIL Journal sat down with Pastor Matt and Pastor Randy to find out how the two churches worked together and what they learned in the process.
AVAIL: What was the immediate impact to your campus and congregation from Hurricane Ian? Where are you now in terms of recovery?
Matt Keller: Two of our four buildings had significant roof damage—both need new roofs. One of our buildings is our downtown location, which is still under construction. Our Cape Coral location was the one that was closest to the eyewall, and we had about a 20-foot stretch of roof that ripped off above our stage. In terms of our staff—this is not an exaggeration—half of our staff had significant damage to their homes. Everything from roofs to sewer issues coming up. Then, as best as we can tell, probably 100 families in our church lost their homes. So we have been working with them, coming alongside them and standing with them to be as much of a blessing to them as we possibly can and just be hands and feet of Jesus.
AVAIL: Although Bradenton, where Bayside is located, didn’t get hit as hard as the Fort Myers area, there was still an impact. How did people in your church respond to the needs in Ft. Myers, even as they were facing some of their own challenges in the aftermath of the hurricane?
Randy Bezet: Though Bradenton was not among the hardest hit areas, many of our surrounding communities and counties were hit with flooding and wind damage. Despite this, more than 1,500 volunteers served during our disaster relief efforts. Over the course of weeks and months after Hurricane Ian, we sent teams of volunteers down to not only provide support with clean-up efforts, but also to deliver food, water and other basic necessities and supplies. It was incredible to hear how some of our volunteers still came to serve others even though they had personally been impacted. It was an incredible picture of the church coming together to meet the needs of one another and seeing God move.
AVAIL: Did Bayside have to cancel any services leading up to or after the hurricane? How long did you feel the impact of the hurricane on day-to-day ministry?
Randy Bezet: We did not cancel any weekend services, but on the weekend immediately following the hurricane, we changed the focus of our weekend and held a family-style service at each of our campuses. It is always important, but especially in times like these, that we are sensitive to what God may be wanting to do, so we gladly laid down our traditional service plans. At some of our locations, we did not have power, so we held services outdoors because it was important to us that we offer an opportunity to not only worship the Lord, but also provide prayer and encouragement for those who were hurting and carrying heavy loads. We also focused our weekday ministry efforts on hurricane relief so that we could respond quickly to the needs around us. We deployed all of our staff to support the various disaster relief efforts for three weeks following the hurricane, in order to respond in the way Jesus would have.
Matt Keller: It was beautiful to watch the church of Jesus rise up. There was a woman who came into one of our locations a few weeks ago, and she looked at my wife after the service and said, “I just want to thank you. In the days after the storm, you fed me.” And then it dawned on my wife in that moment that this woman was literally talking about physical food and water—that she and her small children did not have access to food and water and were starving. We’re just so thankful that God let us, that He used us to be the hands and feet of Jesus like that.
AVAIL: Bayside mobilized more than 1,000 volunteers to be involved in the relief effort.
Randy Bezet: Yes, over the course of our disaster relief efforts we saw more than 1,500 volunteers serve across Manatee, Sarasota, Hardee, Desoto, Lee and Charlotte Counties. From flood waters to wind damage and destruction, families in these areas were devastated by the effects of Hurricane Ian. Immediately following the hurricane and in the weeks and months that followed, we sent teams of volunteers into those areas to deliver meals, goods and supplies like non-perishable food, water, toiletries, generators and gasoline. Additionally, we’ve had teams support in the restoration process, removing drywall, flooring and damaged furniture. We have been so encouraged by our volunteers’ generous support of not only their time, but also their prayers and financial generosity.
AVAIL: What are some of the long-term positive impacts on Bayside that you can see as a result of your church’s involvement in the efforts? In other words, has it affected your future strategy as a church?
Randy Bezet: We have always been passionate about supporting our community; in fact, that is why I named this church Bayside Community Church. We believe the church is more than a building or a service, it’s a community of people who can bring hope to the hopeless by being the hands and feet of Jesus Christ. While this has always been our heart, we have intentionally built and tweaked strategy over the years so that when a situation arises that impacts our community, the church can be among the first to respond.
Matt Keller: We are seeing unprecedented numbers of unchurched people who are now open to the gospel because of what we call the Orange Army. We all put on orange shirts, and we got out and served. A reporter named us that during Hurricane Irma five years ago, and the branding stuck. Every weekend we have between 50 and 100 new people who are coming to Next Level Church between all of our locations, and we are seeing unprecedented numbers of salvations. The other thing I would say is that people are so open to God, because of the crisis we went through, because of the devastation and loss that they have felt. We’re just trying to steward the aftermath of the storm. I looked at Sarah the night before the storm hit, once it had started to turn and come toward us instead of coming toward Tampa. I said, “God is trusting us. For whatever reason, God is trusting us with the storm, and we’re going to steward it.” Sure enough, it was massive, we took a direct hit, and our heart has just been to steward that well for the gospel’s sake.
AVAIL: Your church is large. What would you say to smaller churches that may feel they don’t have the resources to be involved in their communities in this way?
Randy Bezet: I would say that you don’t have to be a large church to make a large impact. Start where you are, do what you can and look for ways to respond with the resources you have. I think back to when we were just getting started as a church. Before we had our first service, we made a decision to do what we could and serve our community by giving away backpacks to kids who needed them before the new school year started. Although that may seem small, it produced in us a culture of always looking for ways to serve and meet the needs of those around us. I believe that stewarding each of those opportunities
has allowed God to trust us with more and more. I would also encourage churches to remember that we are all better together. Don’t be afraid to partner together with other churches in your community. Even though Bayside is a large church, we made an even larger impact in our community and ultimately for the kingdom of God by partnering with other incredible churches like Next Level who carry the same heart as we do.
AVAIL: How has this changed your relationship with other pastors and church leaders in the area?
Randy Bezet: Since I moved to this area, one of the things I have focused on is developing relationships with other pastors and church leaders in our area. I know that when we partner together to be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, we can exponentially reach more people, spreading the gospel and making a kingdom impact for generations to come.
Matt Keller: I’m so thankful to God that He let us build so many strong relationships with other pastors. We have a group text thread for disasters like this with about 20 or so churches here in the southwest coast of Florida. We activated that text thread during the storm and the days after the storm. All the churches were able to share resources and let each other know where you could get ice and where you could get supplies. So if it’s done anything, it’s strengthened those relationships. We are more for each other, for helping each other, cheering each other on and praying for each other than we’ve ever been.
AVAIL: Did this set the stage for any future partnership with Next Level or other churches that were affected?
Randy Bezet: I am so thankful for the relationship we have with Next Level Church and the many other churches who carry the same heart to reach our communities for Jesus Christ. It should never be about any other name than the name of Jesus, and when we work together, the name of Jesus is declared in bigger ways than we could ever imagine. Whether through disaster relief efforts, prayer or ministry support, we value partnership with other churches and are passionate about walking alongside others to meet both the practical and spiritual needs of those in our community and across the world. We will continue to work with Matt and the Next Level team to not only restore their community, but also grow into the full potential of what God has planned for them. My hope and prayer is that other churches and church leaders develop a passion to serve their community, not only in times of disaster, but also throughout the year.
AVAIL: How do you feel the response to this crisis by Next Level and Bayside reflects some of the values of ARC?
Matt Keller: I think what happened with Next Level and Bayside—and so many other ARC churches here in the state of Florida and around the country— demonstrated exactly what the ARC is about. And that is that we stand with each other. We are not in competition with each other. We are here to support each other and love each other, and the outpouring of finances and love and prayer and support and sending teams from our churches—literally dozens and dozens and dozens of ARC churches from across the state and around the country and
the world—just blew our mind. The response of this underlines exactly what the ARC is all about: that we are an association of related churches, and our relationships together have allowed the hands and feet of Jesus to shine brightly and make a huge impact after a crisis like Hurricane Ian.
AVAIL: How have your staff and volunteers dealt with the trauma of the aftermath of the storm, and do you think your leadership has changed as a result?
Matt Keller: Right from the gate we had a crisis plan that was several pages long. We were able to activate that crisis plan. All of our staff knew that your first priority is your family, your home and your property. But after that, our next priority is to mobilize the church of Jesus as fast as we possibly can to be the hands and feet of Jesus. And so that’s what we did. In terms of staff and volunteers, it has been devastating, it’s been painful, it’s been a lot of work. It’s been hard. But we mobilized, I believe, about 5,200 volunteers over that six- or eight-week period of time following the storm. Has it changed our leadership? Not necessarily, because we were already serving our community one Saturday a month—we still do—mobilizing that Orange Army. That was a part of the culture of who we are. I think if it’s done anything, it has now given us the ability to really leverage friendships and relationships for gospel opportunities with organizations that we were serving. This has given us a deeper commitment to one another to be able to really serve the under-resourced and the hurting and the broken of our city.