Breaking down barriers — new and old — to help tornado victims
MAYFIELD, Ky. — Before the tornado, Penny Wade Smith grew…
MAYFIELD, Ky. — Teresa Herndon could’ve focused on what was lost.
Her home. Her neighborhood. Her sense of normalcy.
Instead, Herndon, 52, praised God for what she found after an EF4 tornado wiped out huge parts of her western Kentucky hometown the night of Dec. 10.
The Northside Church of Christ member and her husband, Andrew Herndon, a Northside elder, were in Las Vegas that weekend to see concerts by Blue Man Group and Shania Twain.
After learning of the Friday night storm, the Herndons quickly caught a flight and returned to Mayfield. About 1:30 p.m. Saturday — 16 hours after the twister hit — they approached what remained of the farmhouse they had built in 1993.
Teresa could not believe the scene.
No, not the devastation at the place where the couple had raised their daughter, Kirsten Payne, 26, and son, Sidney Herndon, 24.
No, not the rubble at the center of the residence, where Teresa and Andrew would have taken cover — and likely not survived — if they had been home.
No, something else caught Teresa’s attention.
The people in the yard.
“There were probably 100 to 125 of them,” she said of the helpers who came to clean up and salvage belongings. “I did not call a single person. … These were my church friends, family, friends of my church friends, people I did not know.”
In her lifetime, Teresa has listened to a lot of sermons.
That afternoon, she witnessed one.
“When you read (in the Bible) about the type of person we’re supposed to be and how we’re supposed to represent Christ, that’s what I saw in my yard,” she said.
I met Teresa at a Sunday night service at Northside when Audrey Jackson, The Christian Chronicle’s associate editor, and I traveled to Kentucky to report on the tornado’s aftermath.
The Herndons’ experience was just one of many inspiring stories that we heard about — or observed — while in Mayfield.
Northside member Jimmy Miller, 82, recognized me from my Chronicle picture and introduced Audrey and me to a bunch of people.
After the service, Miller and another member, John Dunn, showed us the fellowship hall that Northside turned into a relief center full of food and supplies for tornado victims.
He shared an anecdote about two of his grandchildren who attend the Northside church.
The family had left town after losing power in the storm, but the grandchildren — Miller Riley, 14, who is named after her grandfather, and Jackson Riley, 13 — insisted that they had to return home by that Wednesday.
“Her mom said, ‘Honey, we don’t have electricity,’” he recalled with a chuckle.
But his granddaughter explained that the church was handing out toys to children who lost their homes in the tornado.
So the family returned in time for the teens to serve their neighbors.
That same Sunday, Audrey and I met other helpers at the Seven Oaks Church of Christ, another Mayfield congregation that has been extremely active in relief efforts.
Before the morning assembly, Seven Oaks member Kara Kirschbaum and her 11-year-old son, Cameron, were busy making trays full of rolls for the community.
“He’s a big help,” Kara said of her son.
Related: COVID-19 complicates relief efforts
The Kirschbaums and other church members planned to deliver 300 meals — with barbecue chicken as the main course — to tornado victims that afternoon.
Stacks of chips, plates, cups and loaves of bread were piled high in the Seven Oaks auditorium, another sign of the congregation’s relief work.
Audrey and I didn’t get to meet Tyler Alverson, the congregation’s preacher. He was home that Sunday recovering from COVID-19, part of a coronavirus outbreak that complicated the church’s disaster ministry. But I talked to Alverson later.
“All the credit and glory go to God. That’s something we want to state explicitly. Everything we’ve been able to do is because of him.”
He praised the elders and members of both Seven Oaks and Northside for working hard to meet the community’s needs. He expressed gratitude for individual Christians and congregations nationwide that sent funds to help.
Alverson shared how Seven Oaks plans to provide 20 families who lost cars in the tornado with down payments to buy new vehicles.
Also in the works: Seven Oaks and Northside will work with Kentucky-based Bread of Life Humanitarian Effort to build about 30 “tiny homes” to help displaced renters on a temporary basis.
“All the credit and glory go to God,” Alverson said. “That’s something we want to state explicitly. Everything we’ve been able to do is because of him.”
Teresa Herndon won’t ever forget the people in the yard.
“The church just really stepped up,” she said. “That’s what we’re supposed to do.”
Yes, the storm rattled her.
Not only did her family lose its home, but Arrowhead Camper Sales — the business that she and her brother, Jason Fitzgerald, own — sustained major damage.
Still, she looks on the bright side.
Her son found her Bible and her late father’s Bible in the debris. Her entire family survived, and her daughter is pregnant, so Teresa anticipates meeting her first grandchild in a few weeks. Teresa’s house can be rebuilt, exactly the same as before.
“I don’t do change,” Teresa said, laughing. “I just like normal.”
A return to normal may take a while.
But Teresa remains hopeful.
“It’s either going to make you weak or make you stronger,” she said of her tornado experience. “I’m not going to let the devil get a hold of me. My prayer is that one soul is saved from seeing the love shown by the church.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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