NASHVILLE, Tenn. — In Jesus’ familiar parable, a host demands that his servants search “streets and alleys” for people to serve at a great banquet.
But for the Bellevue Church of Christ, it was the freeway — Interstate 40, closed by torrential rains — that brought people to its doors.
They came seeking shelter. The church served them a banquet.
On that first Sunday in May, when the Bellevue church served and housed stranded motorists and people washed out of their homes, the congregation experienced just a trickle of the need that was to come.
Storms that weekend claimed 20 lives in Tennessee as well as six in Mississippi and four in Kentucky.
An unprecedented 13.5 inches of rain fell in parts of Middle and West Tennessee in a two-day period, overwhelming the Cumberland River and submerging Nashville’s iconic landmarks, including the Grand Ole Opry. Thousands of homes were flooded, and damage is estimated in the billions of dollars.
The Bellevue area, southwest of downtown Nashville, was one of the city’s hardest hit.
Steve Blackman, pulpit minister for the Bellevue church, said 40 families in the congregation suffered property damage, most of them losing everything.
“The Harpeth River flows through here in a serpentine fashion,” Blackman said. “Well, the snake bit us.”
The banquet his congregation shared with the stranded motorists on May 2 was intended for the church’s graduating seniors. Blackman arrived at the building at 7 a.m., as usual, to make final preparations for the morning’s services.
Within an hour, floodwaters blocked the roads between his house and the church. His family wouldn’t be joining him for worship. Then the minister heard that the songleader’s house had flooded.
Only 89 people made it to the 9 a.m. assembly out of the customary 700. Once there, some couldn’t make it home.
The congregation opened its doors to other people caught by the flood. The meal prepared for the graduates went to about 100 overnight guests. Bellevue members supplied air mattresses, sheets and blankets.
The last “customers” arrived at 4 a.m. Monday, said Blackman, who finally got home that night.
NEEDS IN A DIVERSE COMMUNITY
In the days that followed, the Bellevue church became a focal point for relief and reconstruction. The congregation has worked with aid organizations to train volunteers to enter damaged homes and prepare them for rebuilding, tearing out waterlogged drywall and removing articles fouled with river water.
Southeast of downtown, the Antioch Church of Christ serves an area hard hit by waters from Mill Creek.
In a community known for diversity, the congregation reaches out to residents from 66 countries in its English classes, said Lisa Steele, director of English-language classes and the Hispanic ministry.
While a few in the congregation suffered damage, the Antioch church assisted 700 families — 60 to 70 percent of them immigrants — the first six days after the flood, Steele said.
“We were surrounded by water,” Steele recalled. “They were launching rescue boats right in front of our building.”
With the church forced to cancel services, the Antioch staff got to work as waters receded. On Tuesday, leaders went door to door surveying damage. In touch with Nashville-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort, the church received a truckload of supplies Tuesday night. And Steele said Antioch served “hundreds and hundreds” of meals with the help of Lake Jackson, Texas-based Disaster Assistance CoC, a mobile-food ministry.
About two weeks after the disaster, the church hosted a Hispanic community meeting with representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and other assistance organizations. An information booth in Spanish located in the church lobby offers information to people still seeking help.
WIDOWS, ELDERLY DISPLACED
Other parts of Nashville — and places far from the state capital — mirrored the destruction in Bellevue and Antioch.
The small Pennington Bend Church of Christ meets across from Opryland Hotel, which was evacuated because of Cumberland River floodwaters.
Three Pennington Bend members lost their homes, and eight suffered considerable damage, said minister Tom Boyette. Most of the victims are widows, Boyette said, adding that many in his congregation are in their 80s.
At press time, one Pennington Bend family was temporarily living in the church building, which escaped damage. Boyette and his wife hosted a displaced member and her neighbor and son.
With Pennington Bend’s resources limited, the minister said, the congregation was working closely with the larger Mt. Juliet Church of Christ, east of Nashville.
In West Tennessee, members of the Millington Church of Christ, north of Memphis, also suffered damage from heavy rainfall and breached levees.
Family minister and elder Howard Howell said that 10 families in the congregation lost nearly everything. He said he was grateful for volunteers from nearby congregations helping rebuild Millington homes.
“One of the most amazing things is the churches working together,” Howell said. “It’s totally different when you have other folks working with you.”
‘IT’S ALL COME HOME TO US’
While congregations helped members and neighbors, organizations tied to Churches of Christ also played key roles in the Tennessee flood response.
By the end of the third week after the floods, Nashville’s Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort had shipped $1.5 million worth of flood-related supplies, said vice president and executive director Joe Dudney.
The organization set up 20 distribution centers at Tennessee churches, including nine in Nashville. In addition to the Antioch church, the Bellevue, Pennington Bend and Millington congregations received shipments.
Launched in 1990, the Disaster Relief Effort has distributed relief supplies to almost all 50 states.
With a disaster in the organization’s own backyard, Dudney acknowledged the tasks ahead.
“It’s all come home to us,” he said. “It’s big, and it’s going to get bigger.”
A LONG-SERVING SHELTER
Five miles from the Disaster Relief Effort’s 48,500 square-foot warehouse, Lipscomb University opened its doors to displaced people by hosting a Red Cross shelter.
Operating for 18 days, the shelter was the area’s first to open and last to close, according to university officials.
“While we have celebrated the work of students and staff who have traveled around the world to do mission and humanitarian work … this opportunity for service reflected the urgent needs of our own community,” Lipscomb President Randy Lowry told employees in an e-mail.
As many as 500 volunteers helped, serving between 400 and 800 people, said Walt Leaver, vice president for university relations.
Lipscomb agreed to the request May 1, just as the flooding began. A Red Cross trailer arrived with 200 cots that Lipscomb students unloaded in the pouring rain, Leaver said.
Around 10 p.m., the first guests arrived — a father, mother and several children. By dawn, the shelter had 70 occupants. Sunday afternoon, it reached capacity.
The university used its Student Activities Center as sleeping quarters and McQuiddy Gymnasium for guests to eat and relax.
“We just tried to provide some semblance … of life for those who were here,” Leaver said.