Editor’s Note: At the risk of seeming redundant, The Batavian believes that Winter Storm Elliott easily became the biggest story of 2022, and there are many people, groups, businesses, and municipalities that are deserving of the spotlight for their contributions to assist the hundreds stranded in Genesee County during the Christmas weekend. This is another of those stories.
Try to imagine yourself on a trip, excitedly going to visit family for the holidays.
Only you get stuck in a big snowstorm and have to hang out with a bunch of strangers and quite possibly sleep on the floor.
That was no imaginary scenario last weekend for the more than 100 people stranded at Grace Baptist Church. And their response was anything but expected, Pastor Jeff Bartz says.
“Strangers became like friends and family; we genuinely enjoyed each other,” he said Friday. “People were generally overwhelmed by (those who came to help).”
As Dec. 23’s storm became more apparent and dangerous, county officials began to organize warming shelters for stranded motorists. Sheriff Bill Sheron reached out to Grace Baptist in Batavia to see if the Vine Street site could be a shelter. There was no hesitation, Bartz said.
“We were excited just to be able to help,” he said. “We were waiting in the foyer, and people started coming. Once they started … it started flowing.”
His wife Jami added that “We grabbed all of our extra blankets, cereal and milk from home” and then shuffled people into various rooms at the church. They put the call out that they were accepting stranded travelers. And those travelers continued to arrive, easily surpassing 100 by Friday evening, she said.
The couple reflected on a scripture referring to God being a shelter in the storm, and the church was literally transformed into just that. And in quite the storm. By all accounts from area rescue workers, including Jeff who is with the International Guard Reserves, Elliott far surpassed others, including the blizzard of ’77. Genesee County took in more than 700 travelers from Dec. 23 to 25.
Although most Grace Baptist visitors had their vehicles in the nearby parking lot — unlike so many others who got stuck in snow — they not only stayed for safety’s sake but come Christmas morning, also for a stunning reason, Jeff said.
Travelers asked if he would perform a service that morning, and so he prepared one. Focusing on the first chapter of Luke, he talked about the aspects of God’s love, many of which had been demonstrated for all to see that weekend, Jeff said.
“So we gathered in our sanctuary and sang the timeless, treasured carols we all know and love. We read and reflect on God’s love for us in sending His Son, Jesus, to save us from our sin … and how God shows through the Christmas story that He is mindful of us, mighty over us, and merciful to us,” he said. “We were literally experiencing those truths while we weathered the blizzard in the warm safety of our Christmas storm shelter.
“Immediately after the service, we were informed the travel ban was lifted,” he said. “But 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.”
Yes, after all of the potential anger, frustration, irritation and disappointment that travelers could have reasonably felt, they instead seemed to grasp the moments of true caring for one another, he and Jami said.
“It was a representation of the true meaning of Christmas,” Jami said. “It was one of those unique opportunities to be presented for people to do something. It was Christmas, but life stopped for everybody at Grace Baptist, and they just rallied.”
Community and church members pitched in with homemade meals, Batavia’s Original sent over several pizzas, Salvation Army sent over food, American Red Cross sent cots, county and city officials worked to get supplies, food and water to the shelter, and even the Bartz’s two younger sons, Michael, 16, and 14-year-old Timmy, hung out and played with the kids, and set up coffee and hot chocolate.
Timmy imagined how it would feel to be in their position.
“I thought it would probably stink,” he said.
With holiday movies playing, dozens of strangers mingling, three dogs, a cat, and an albino ball python added to the mix, it was, indeed, a good Christmas for folks such as Nick and Marijana Bankovic, who were traveling from New York City to Canada with their kids Emilija and Jovan when they got stuck in Batavia due to the winter storm
They were some fo the many people who sent notes to thank Grace Baptist for its hospitality. They also wanted to share a snippet of their time at Grace with The Batavian after feeling “like everything that could possibly go wrong was happening,” the couple said.
“The kindness, help and warmth that I have seen from everyone from the stranded travelers, the members of the church, Batavia law enforcement, the residents and business of Batavia and the surrounding community brought tears of joy to my eyes,” they said in an email. “The below-freezing cold weather, the blinding snowstorm, running low on gas, food and drinks, driving five miles per hour, falling into the ditch, slipping and falling down, hurting my back and elbow at the McDonald’s rest stop area on I-90 near Rochester … It took the Batavia community and fellow travelers to show me no matter how many bad things happen there will always be good warm-hearted people who are willing to do what they can to help and make things better.”
Photos of travelers stranded from Winter Storm Elliott during Christmas 2022 weekend taking refuge at Grace Baptist Church in Batavia; eating, talking, joking, playing and enjoying time with one another. Photos submitted by Jeff and Jami Bartz.