Deadly twisters, serving hearts
After tornadoes ravaged the East Texas town of Canton, Bryan…
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Moments before a tornado wiped out the Central Church of Christ building, six students huddled in a small cinderblock 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,” said Caleb Durden, a Central member whose brother, Trae, serves as campus minister. “Glass was hitting us in the head. Debris. We had glass and rust and just pieces of metal in our hair.”
The students — all active with the Tide 4 Christ campus ministry — couldn’t hear anything as the storm drowned out the heavenly plea of Naylor, whose home congregation is the Forrest Park Church of Christ in Valdosta, Ga.
“The old saying is, ‘A tornado sounds like a freight train,’” said Andrew Broadfoot, who calls the Beltline Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala., home. “Well, it almost sounded like 10 freight trains. We were lucky that that room held.”
After about 15 to 20 seconds, the noise quieted.
The students — who also included Kyle Henderson and Caleb Bradford from the Austinville Church of Christ in Decatur, Ala., and Justin Miller from the Wetumpka Church of Christ in Alabama — opened the closet door.
Broadfoot looked to the left, where the church’s family life center used to be.
“It was completely destroyed,” he said, “and that’s when we realized how bad it was.”
‘THINGS DON’T MATTER’
In an instant, America’s deadliest tornado outbreak since the Great Depression obliterated the Central church building.
The April 27 swath of twisters that killed about 350 people and injured thousands more across seven states did not, however, destroy the Alabama church.
“The building where we worshiped is gone, but the church is here,” Central elder Don Wheeler told the 300-member congregation the Sunday afternoon after the storm.
“Amen!” agreed a chorus of voices in the already tearful crowd, assembled at a special 2 p.m. service moved to the Northport Church of Christ.
About 150 miles north of Tuscaloosa, about 30 people — Christians and non-Christians alike — waited out the storm in the Bethel Church of Christ basement.
“About the best thing I can say is, they didn’t have a scratch. They were all safe and sound,” said Jimmy Clark, minister of the Bethel church, about four miles east of Athens, Ala., along U.S. Highway 72.
All around them, though, was destruction.
The church auditorium, a classroom annex and a nearby home where the preacher used to live all were destroyed.
“It’s like a bomb went off for a half-mile wide,” said Clark, noting that 14 of the church’s families lost their homes.
The force threw Bethel church elder Jerry West, who lived directly across the street from the building, into his front yard.
West suffered a broken collarbone and dislocated shoulder. He stayed overnight in the hospital. His house is gone.
That Sunday, the congregation moved its service to the West Hobbs Church of Christ in Athens. A crowd of 360 showed up, and eight members asked to be restored.
“People realize now that things don’t matter,” Clark said.
‘TEARS WERE SHED’
In the small town of Hackleburg, Ala., more than two dozen people died as a tornado destroyed the only grocery store, schools, the police station, the fire department and homes.
Winds stronger than 200 mph ripped away the front of the Hackleburg Church of Christ building and ravaged the foundation, walls and roof, minister Mike Lane said.
The building appears to be a total loss, Lane said.
“I don’t know whether we can salvage the pews or not,” he added.
Lane and his wife, Betty, hid in a closet in their house about three blocks from the church.
“It’s the only place in the house where we could have survived it,” the minister said. “My wife got a broken clavicle. I got bruised up pretty badly. Other than that, I’m in pretty good shape.”
Bridget Renee Barnwell Brisbois, 34, a member of the Hackleburg church, died in the storm, Lane said. Her son, Mitchell, less than a month old, was with his grandparents and survived.
That Sunday, church members — including a half-dozen or more families who lost homes — gathered for a short worship assembly outside the devastated building.
“Tears were shed,” Lane said. “I spoke some encouraging words. It was the beginning of the healing process.”
In the hard-hit town of Smithville, Miss., population 900, the Church of Christ was converted into a food, clothing and medicine distribution center, and the congregation gathered outside for an open-air service.
“People come together when the need arises,” Smithville church elder Danny Stephenson told AFP, a French news agency.
‘AS THE LORD PROVIDES’
Almost as soon as the tornadoes passed, Christians across the nation began opening their wallets to help, while disaster relief organizations associated with Churches of Christ rushed resources to storm-ravaged communities.
At the Kittanning Church of Christ in Pennsylvania, the Summerville Church of Christ in South Carolina, the Jasper Church of Christ in Texas and numerous other congregations, special contributions were taken.
“Our church and community were the beneficiaries of this kind of relief when Hurricane Rita hit our town” in 2005, said Sharon Wells, a member of the Jasper church.
Among the relief organizations at work:
• Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort (www.disasterreliefeffort.org) shipped semi-truck loads full of supplies to hard-hit communities in Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and Tennessee.
In keeping with its practice after wildfires, floods, hurricanes and other tornadoes, the Nashville,
Tenn.-based ministry worked with local churches, including the Hackleburg congregation, to distribute bottled water, canned goods, cleaning materials and other essential items to victims — church members or not.
“We’re just thrilled about the response of our brethren,” Lane said. “Our phone has just rung constantly. … I cannot express enough our love and appreciation for our brethren.”
• Mike Baumgartner with Disaster Assistance CoC (www.disasterassistancecoc.com), a feeding ministry overseen by the Lake Jackson Church of Christ in Texas, drove to Tuscaloosa and started cooking.
• The Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team (www.churchesofchristdrt.org), sponsored by the Melbourne Church of Christ in West Melbourne, Fla., made plans to set up a command center in Tuscaloosa.
• WFR Relief (www. wfrchurch.org/relief), a ministry of the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., sent money, members and equipment and planned to “do more as the Lord provides,” church member Royce Ogle said.
‘YOU HAVE RISEN TO THE OCCASION’
In Tuscaloosa, the Central church building and its Tide 4 Christ student center are — or were — about a mile south of the University of Alabama campus.
The Sunday after the storm, wreckage surrounded the church building as nearby residents dug through remains.
Some trees lay tipped over like fallen chess pieces. Others remained standing but stripped of all bark, holding displaced objects such as shoes and toys.
National Guard troops patrolled destroyed neighborhoods to keep out looters, while search-and-rescue teams worked to locate missing residents.
The gymnasium at the rear of the church building was crumpled into an indiscernible heap. Insulation, leaves and glass were strewn about the auditorium. Giant chunks of classroom and office walls were missing. The collapsed roof of a carport covered a church van in debris.
But amid all the destruction — and despite the realization that the church building and surrounding community would soon have to be bulldozed — the faithful brimmed with an undeniable hope.
That Sunday morning, members gathered not for their normal worship assembly but at their respective work stations -— eager to provide disaster relief assistance to friends and neighbors.
Outside the church building, workers sorted and distributed donated food and water.
On another side of the building, volunteers took inventory of clothing, flashlights, batteries, candles, baby
items and other contributions.
Out front, a gentleman flipped hot dogs and hamburgers on a grill. A group of ladies wrapped the entrees and coupled them with chips to provide sustenance to relief workers and tornado victims.
“We’re going to build this back,” Central member John Box said while working to clear pews and songbooks from the auditorium. “It’s going to take some time, but with some help, we’re going to build this back.”
Central preacher Lee Jamieson and a number of the church’s youth loaded pickups and drove to leveled neighborhoods, where they passed out food and cases of water.
While they focused mainly on physical needs, they looked for evangelistic opportunities.
“The Gospel goes hand in hand with this kind of relief,” Jamieson said.
Even Caleb Durden and the other students who survived the tornado joined the relief effort.
“The people were so thankful,” Durden said of the victims he helped. “The sad thing is these children running around. You know, they don’t have a home around. A lot of people are just dazed. You walk around and see people just sitting there. They don’t know what to do.”
That Sunday afternoon, members of the University Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa and the Rivergate Church of Christ in Birmingham, Ala., took over the relief operation while Central members turned their attention to worship.
In his sermon, Jamieson praised the congregation’s outpouring of love in the face of an ever-increasing death toll.
“You have risen to the occasion,” he said. “I have never been so proud to be a Christian.”
His closing thought was simple.
“What remains? Faith. Hope. And love,” he said. “Those are the only three things we had beforehand anyway. The things that matter have not changed.”
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