TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The slab.
That’s about all that remains of the Central Church of Christ building.
But in the aftermath of the April 27 tornado that claimed more than 50 lives in this west-central Alabama city, the congregation turned its back on its own massive pile of bricks and steel.
Instead, members looked outward — to the hurting community — as they worked to feed, clothe and provide physical and spiritual support to thousands of storm victims.
“There’s been quite a few conversions,” preacher Lee Jamieson said. “But the primary difference was when you told people, ‘We’re with the Churches of Christ, and we’re here to help you.’ You could see by the looks on their faces that they knew something special was happening because we had suffered alongside them.”
Now, eight months after transforming its devastated property into a disaster relief center, the 300-member church finds itself about $2 million short of the funds needed to replace its own building, leaders told The Christian Chronicle.
“We’ve been the source of disaster relief,” said Bill Rayburn, one of the church’s five elders. “Now, we’re in need of some relief of our own.”
The church, about a mile south of the University of Alabama campus, had insurance, but the coverage fell short, said Rick Hatfield, a finance committee deacon.
While insured damages exceeded $4 million, he said, the estimate to rebuild a comparable facility is $6.5 million.
The original cinderblock auditorium was built in the 1960s, with additions over the years. The tornado also destroyed the Tide 4 Christ campus ministry house next to the church.
“At first blush, I thought, ‘That’s got to be enough,’” Hatfield said of the covered damages.
“But when you talk about replacing stuff — what the building is worth versus what it would cost to replace everything — it’s a pretty big difference.”
The church has launched an internal capital campaign and sent a letter to sister congregations.
At the same time, church leaders recognize that “it’s not the greatest economy to ask people to give a lot of money,” Hatfield said.
The finance committee is working to trim costs — and square footage.
‘MORE TENDER’ HEARTS
Moments before the tornado wiped out the Central building, six students active with the Tide 4 Christ ministry huddled in a small closet at the church.
Carl Naylor started to pray, but he managed just two words before the twister came.
“By the time he said ‘Dear Lord,’ our ears started popping, and hairs stood up on our arms,” Caleb Durden told the Chronicle
last spring. “Glass was hitting us in the head. Debris. We had glass and rust and just pieces of metal in our hair.”
All six students survived.
The church building and many nearby homes and businesses did not.
Contents of the Central facilities that could be salvaged — furniture, chairs, shelving, Sunday school curriculum and historical paperwork, but not the damaged-beyond-repair pews — fill three donated tractor-trailers parked near the slab.
But amid all the destruction, the congregation launched a long-term disaster relief effort that provided 45,000 hot meals to victims and volunteers.
The church hosted roughly 2,000 volunteers
— many from youth groups. The volunteers’ backbreaking task: moving mountains of debris to residents’ curbsides.
At the same time, Central leaders managed hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations and supplies — from diapers to appliances — that flowed in from churches and relief ministries across the nation.
Funds were set aside strictly for disaster relief unless the donor specified that the money should go to the church’s building fund, Central’s elders said.
“My hope is that it has made the heart of the church more tender, more mission-minded, more recognizing of the service that the Lord wants us to do,” Debbye Thorne, wife of elder Burrell Thorne, said of the relief effort.
HOME AWAY FROM HOME
The first few Sunday afternoons after the tornado, the Central church met across town at the Northport Church of Christ building.
But then the congregation found a home at the Alabama Fire College.
The fire college, about 10 minutes from the church site, offered the use of its building — for free — each Sunday morning, Sunday night and Wednesday night.
Church members set up chairs and worship in an apparatus bay where the college normally parks four fire trucks.
Allan Rice, the fire college’s executive director, said a friend — Frank Wampol, a member of the Riverchase Church of Christ in Birmingham — first called him about the Central church’s plight.
“We were very quickly able to help them,” Rice said. “Honestly, everything has just been flawless since that time. We haven’t had an issue on either side of the fence.”
At one point, the fire college housed tornado victims who had been released from the hospital but had no place to return. Rice recalled a disabled man who had lost all his possessions in a demolished apartment. The man needed a vehicle so that he could maintain his independence.
“The Central church stepped up to the plate and provided this gentleman with a car,” Rice said. “It was more than just a car. It restored the life he had before the tornado.”
If anything, Rayburn said, the journey since the tornado has made the congregation “stronger rather than weaker.”
“It’s hard to equate the total devastating losses that we’ve had to be a good thing, but you know, the Bible promises that all things work together for good for them that love the Lord,” the church elder said. “I think, in the long run, we may find that this is the greatest blessing that God ever gave us as a congregation.”
No Central members were killed.
A few dozen members lost homes and suffered other damages. The church helped a number of them financially.
Among the victims: longtime Central member Bobbi Adams, 76, a grandmother of 18 and a great-grandmother of nine.
The twister destroyed Adams’ home.
She was thrown 50 yards and buried under a displaced wall until a neighbor rescued her.
The neighbor placed her on a homemade stretcher, and relatives rushed her to the hospital.
“We’ve been blessed with having a place to go to church for as long as we need it,” she said of the fire college. “But of course, you miss your old church, the building.”
Ultimately, the elders said, fulfilling Central’s mission as a congregation will require rebuilding its facilities.
“We need to be back where we were,” elder Glenn Griffin said. “As you drive through Tuscaloosa, there are bare spots where houses and businesses used to be. Some may never return. But we don’t want to be a bare spot.”
Griffin voiced confidence that the Lord will provide.
“Whatever he provides for us is what we’ll build in his honor,” he said. “If it’s a two-room church, then we’ll go worship in a two-room church.”
TO HELP REBUILD CENTRAL, donate online at www.centralchofchrist.org or mail checks to the Central Church of Christ, 304 Hargrove Road, Tuscaloosa, AL 35401