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After a devastating storm, the power of God’s church amazes

Two months ago, a tornado roared through Enterprise, Ala., forever changing my neighbors and me. We lost nine of our citizens that horrible Thursday, including eight students at our high school. Our loss has prompted us to recall, record and relive that horrible day.
God put his church in the world to make a difference. We cannot stay within the walls of our church buildings and not interface with the world. In fact, the church is the only hope the world has. We must shine as lights and glorify our father.
Besides preaching at the College Avenue church in Enterprise, I am a licensed marriage and family therapist with a small, part-time practice. I also serve as chaplain for our local police and fire departments.
On the afternoon of the tornado, I left the church building for a lunchtime counseling appointment.
Just after 1 p.m., I walked into the waiting room and saw the clouds begin to swirl. They crisscrossed in front of one another, and in seconds, the whole sky turned black. The huge funnel cloud literally filled the sky. In 15 seconds, the tornado passed by, and every siren in town screamed that Enterprise had suffered a tragedy.
Immediately, I put on my chaplain badge. I headed to our high school, where children were missing in the rubble. I walked in and out of the devastated school building, removing debris and helping rescue teams search for survivors.
Over the next few hours, I was called upon to speak with the parents of children who could not be found. Each time I approached the yellow police tape, more parents called out for some word of their children.
The Strunk family is part of the College Avenue church family. Kathy Strunk is a history teacher at Enterprise High School. But when I saw her that afternoon, she was a frightened mother looking for her daughter.
“Have you come to give me bad news?” Those were Kathy’s first words to me. But I had no news to give her, at least not yet.
I don’t remember who asked me to come to the temporary morgue. I entered the dimly lit, damaged classroom. The county coroner and district attorney’s office were trying to identify two girls.
I watched as the people in the room flipped through a high school yearbook trying to make identifications. As the chaplain, I have prayed that I would never have to identify someone I knew, or notify some of my own church’s parents of the death of their child.
But that day, I realized my worst fear.
Someone said they thought one of the girls might be Katie Strunk. I remember saying that I knew Katie. When I looked, I noticed how small her shoes looked. She wore blue jeans that day. She was dressed like any ordinary high school girl.
As they uncovered her face, my heart sunk. I heard myself say, “She’s one of mine. It’s Katie.” Then, based on my identification, Katie was officially listed among the casualties of the tornado.
I walked out of the school and made my way behind the overturned school buses where I found Dirk and Kathy Strunk.
I have assisted on dozens of death notifications, both as a minister and a chaplain.
However, I’ve never had to notify one of my own families that their beautiful, 16-year-old daughter had died. As I look back at that moment, the only comfort I can find is that the torment of their waiting had ended.
Four more times that night, I assisted the mayor’s office in notifying parents and taking them to see their young but lifeless children at the local funeral home. Each time, I prayed and cried with the families.
Early the next morning, I went by the funeral home to make preparations to bring the Strunks to see Katie for the first time since the tornado had taken her away from us. I was taken into a back room where seven of the deceased students lay.
I pray that I will never have to see seven children like that again.
The apostle Paul said, “I became all things to all men that I might win some.” In the days and weeks since the storm, our city has been filled with rescue workers, disaster relief organizations, national and local news teams, and even the president of the United States.
Many people have asked why God sent the tornado. On the Sunday following the storm, I preached from the passage that tells of a weary Elijah after he defeated the prophets of Baal.
1 Kings 19:11-12 says: “Behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a still small voice.”
God was not in the destruction in Enterprise. He is the small still voice that speaks to our hearts.
I stand amazed at the faith and comfort of Katie’s family, our church family, and those who live in this town, where more than 1,000 homes were damaged or destroyed.
As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 4:8-9: “We are hard pressed on every side, yet not crushed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed.”
Now we are rebuilding. Our wonderful brotherhood has responded to our city’s devastation. Words cannot express our gratitude. So many people have reached out to Enterprise. Individuals and churches have sent both monetary donations and people to clean up and rebuild our city. Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc. out of Nashville, Tenn., has provided well over $395,000 worth of goods to help rebuild the city. Churches and individuals have given over $290,000 to help.
I truly stand amazed at the power of God’s church. We must reach beyond the walls of our building that God may be glorified. Keep praying for us.

KEITH ELLIS is the minister of the College Avenue Church of Christ in Enterprise, Ala., and a licensed marriage and family therapist. For more information, visit the church Web site or call (334) 347-8917.

May 1, 2007

Filed under: National Staff Reports

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