Tornado causes significant damage to ministry offices
The offices of three Alabama-based ministries associated with Churches of…
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — The scene along Hargrove Road plays out like many of the nearby neighborhoods in the west Alabama town.
A once-pleasant, moderately affluent community adjacent to a thriving church now lies in ruins. On all sides of the Central Church of Christ, residents are tirelessly attempting to dig through wreckage in hopes of collecting any salvageable items that remain of their now former homes.
Many trees are uprooted, tipped over as fallen chess pieces, oblivious to where they have landed. Some are in homes. Some lie in the street until emergency workers clear them off to the sides of the road.
Still others remain standing, their branches scattered throughout a once neatly arranged suburbia.
Fewer still are the ones that stand firm, stripped of bark and all signs of life. Many of them hold displaced objects such as shoes or toys. One even provides a hook for a mattress, presumably from one of the houses across the street.
The devastation that remains in the wake of last week’s tornado outbreak is reminiscent of a war zone, the analogy completed by the presence of armed National Guardsmen patrolling destroyed neighborhoods to provide assistance to local law enforcement as looters have become increasingly prevalent.
The destruction along Hargrove Road is comparable with that of nearby communities such as Holt and Alberta City, where the storm that was estimated at a mile wide continued its six-mile trek of indiscriminate obliteration.
Yet, Hargrove Road’s circumstances are far less dire due largely to the presence of the Central Church of Christ.
The congregation has long met in its building in the heart of the Hargrove community, a practice that will be indefinitely suspended after the tornado tore through the structure, leaving only a shell of the facility that once housed the congregation of more than 300 members.
The remnants of the Central building were exposed to the elements Wednesday night, April 27, as the storm stripped away windows and brick, leaving shards of glass peppered across the floor of the building’s foyer and auditorium.
The gymnasium at the rear of the building is crumpled into an indiscernible heap while the carport lies in a similar state, its collapse having ruined the car, van and church bus parked under its once-protective roof.
The building’s interior shows similar disarray as pews are covered with insulation, leaves, glass and other debris. Classrooms and offices have materials strewn about and chunks of wall missing.
But amid the destruction and the reality that the building and the surrounding community will soon have to be bulldozed, the area brims with an undeniable hope.
Members of the Central congregation have gathered to their respective workstations, eager to provide assistance as the property has been transformed into a disaster relief station.
One side of the building has workers sorting and distributing food and water donated in the days since the storm. Another sees volunteers doing the same with clothing, flashlights, batteries, candles, baby items and other contributions.
In the front, a gentleman flips hot dogs and hamburgers off a grill while a group of ladies wraps the entrees and couples them with chips to provide sustenance to relief workers and those in need.
Within the carapace of the building, dozens work to salvage anything undamaged and move it into trailers before an expected rainstorm readies to move through the area.
“We’re going to build this back,” Central member John Box says while working to clear pews and songbooks from the building’s auditorium. “It’s going to take some time, but with some help, we’re going to build this back.”
Elsewhere, Central preacher Lee Jamieson and a number of the congregation’s youth load pickup trucks and embark on runs into other leveled neighborhoods where they pass out food and cases of water to anyone in need.
Their efforts focus largely on the physical needs of a displaced population that will be without power for a number of days. Certain instances, however, lend themselves to evangelistic opportunities — windows Jamieson and his team do not often miss.
“The Gospel goes hand in hand with this kind of relief,” Jamieson will later tell the congregation.
The efforts occasionally appear futile amid such widespread disaster, but Jamieson and other Central members remain steadfast.
Their efforts fed more than 1,500 people Thursday, April 28, just hours after the storm. Saturday, 3,600 received food and water from the site.
On Sunday, Central members take the morning shift at the disaster relief station before handing its operations over to members from Tuscaloosa’s University and Birmingham’s Rivergate congregations while they ready to assemble together for the first time since the tragedy.
Their assembly takes place about six miles up the road, an afternoon worship session at the Northport church of Christ building.
Don Wheeler, one of the congregation’s shepherds, is the first to address the group publicly. He encourages the flock to take a moment to hug one another before announcing that Bobbie Adams, the only Central member injured in the storm, would be released from the hospital later that day.
The emotional response was the first of many in the session.
“We’re not going to rebuild, we’re going to make it better,” Wheeler tells the audience.
He then points to the congregation’s bulletin for the week. On the front of the printout are five boxes. The first is a picture of the Central church’s former building on Sixth Street. The next is of the building located on Hargrove Road. The third shows the Hargrove facility after its last renovation while the fourth depicts the building’s shell following Wednesday’s storm.
The final box contains the words, “The church is not a building. The church is people. Lord willing, we will rebuild.”
“The building where we worshiped is gone, but the church is right here,” Wheeler offers. His statement prompts hearty “Amen’s” from an already tearful crowd.
Minutes later, Jamieson steps into the pulpit for the most emotional sermon of his six-year tenure with the congregation.
“Sometime around 5:30 p.m. Wednesday, we witnessed the death of the Central Church of Christ building. Today, we witness the resurrection of the body of the Lord’s saints,” he begins.
The introduction proves an appropriate one as Jamieson begins to remind his listeners of a “kingdom that cannot be shaken.”
His sermon is simplistic in its message as it reminds his brethren that their work continues despite the absence of a building to house it.
“This is not the first tragedy we have faced. It will not be the last one either. The Central Church of Christ is not going away,” he declares. “It is not about rebuilding a building, it is about letting this storm blow away the things that are unimportant to us.”
Jamieson quickly moves to focusing on the task at hand, encouraging his brethren to stay the course in love while also commending them on their previous efforts.
An outpouring of love is an overcoming of circumstance,” he says. “I have seen you this week. You have risen to the occasion. I have never been so proud to be a Christian.”
He soon readies to wrap up his lesson. After a storm has all but wiped away the congregation’s building as well as the homes of the people in its community and after days of providing relief efforts while being subjected to an ever-increasing death toll, Jamieson’s closing thought for Central’s future is simple.
“What remains? Faith. Hope. And love,” he says. “Those are the only three things we had beforehand anyhow. The things that matter have not changed.”
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