After tornado, a teen serves her community while grieving her 4-year-old friend
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Just three nights before the unimaginable happened,…
COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — Mike Luke wore a bright orange “Disaster Assistance Church of Christ” T-shirt as he steered a four-wheel vehicle carrying food and supplies for tornado victims toward a ravaged neighborhood.
Near a hill lined with 18 memorial crosses remembering victims of last week’s EF4 twister, the Christian cattle farmer waved at National Guard troops directing traffic.
On the seat beside him rested a red velvet cake — a favorite treat casually mentioned by a homeowner cleaning up debris the previous day. Luke decided to surprise her with it.
When no one answered the woman’s door, the volunteer allowed only momentary disappointment before moving to the next house.
“We got everything!” he told an extended family working outside a residence with a tarped roof. “We got hot meals! We got hot coffee!”
They accepted a box full of cooked barbecue meat and a half-dozen bottles of Gatorade. They shared that two other relatives — Keith and Cathy Selby — had lived nearby and died in the storm.
“Man, the Church of Christ has been amazing,” said an appreciative Danny Hughes, while another of the group joked that she had gained 5 pounds as a result of the storm.
Across Middle Tennessee, 25 people died last Tuesday as seven tornadoes touched down along an 80-mile stretch from west of downtown Nashville to Putnam County, where Cookeville is the county seat.
Hundreds of people suffered injuries, while thousands of structures were damaged or destroyed as the twisters struck with little warning in the middle of the night.
Even as Churches of Christ mourned their own — at least eight of the Cookeville victims had ties to area congregations — they sprang into action to help hurting and suddenly homeless neighbors.
Fourteen adults and five children were killed in Putnam County. The 19th Cookeville-area victim died after the hillside crosses were erected.
The fatalities included 2-year-old Sawyer Kimberlin — who died along with his parents, Josh and Erin Kimberlin, devoted members of the Colonial Heights Church of Christ — and 4-year-old Hattie Collins.
Hattie’s parents, Matt and Macy Collins, were hospitalized for several days. But they survived along with Hattie’s sister, Lainey, who turned 1 on Thursday. Matt is the youth minister for the Collegeside Church of Christ, across the street from Tennessee Tech University.
At daybreak a week ago, the full extent of the widespread desolation became clear.
Several times a year, Gilbert and fellow Christians had gone to the ministry’s warehouse and helped pack emergency food boxes and cleaning supplies. Now he was asking the disaster relief organization to dispatch a tractor-trailer rig to Cookeville.
“It’ll be on the way as soon as I can get a driver here,” Mike Lewis, the faith-based nonprofit’s executive director, told Gilbert.
When the truck arrived at 1 p.m., 200 volunteers — including a church member with a forklift — were waiting to unload the boxes.
A few miles away at the Willow Avenue Church of Christ, teens and adults organized giant piles of food, clothing and toiletries donated by individuals and congregations.
“No questions asked,” said Amber Tatum, the minister’s wife. “If you need something or know somebody who needs something, come and get it.”
Said Willow Avenue youth group member Kiley Smith, 15: “Just seeing the devastation and hearing the stories from people who have lost everything — you just want to help.”
Three days after the storm, President Donald Trump toured the Jefferson Avenue church’s relief operation while visiting Cookeville.
“He and I walked, just the two of us, down the aisle,” said Gilbert, who gave the president a Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort hat and T-shirt. “I just told him, ‘Hey, God is bringing us together. We believe in him, and he wants us to do what we’re doing.’”
After spending 45 minutes at the church, Trump praised the effort.
“Even all of this — Churches of Christ, tremendous amounts of food and goods — and it all came within a matter of hours,” the president said. “So it’s a case study — a case study of what should be done and how it can be done. It’s Tennessee.”
At the edge of Cookeville’s disaster zone sits the Double Springs Church of Christ — described by elder Stacy Brewington as a “small country church” with Sunday attendance of 175.
Somehow, the Double Springs church building escaped the tornado with no damage at all.
That allowed the congregation to shift quickly into relief mode, serving its own members as well as the community. Six Double Springs church families lost their homes, while 10 other households were displaced. A couple who had attended the church in recent months — Todd and Sue Koehler — were among the dead.
The church became a hub for organizing volunteers such as chainsaw crews as well as feeding victims and helpers.
At first, church leaders wondered how they’d manage to feed all the victims and volunteers who showed up.
But each time they thought they might run out of food, more appeared. Putnam County designated the church as the official food distribution point for the tornado impact area, and restaurants started bringing meals, Brewington said.
The Salvation Army and the American Red Cross came.
“It just turned into, literally, the feeding of the 5,000,” said member Tracy Nabors, working in the church’s kitchen. “I just think it’s a miracle that the building wasn’t damaged, that there’s not even a window out. That’s God right there.”
At one point, a refrigerated truck arrived at the relief site.
“I found Jesus in the hands and feet of many of you who went out here and served.”
Five minutes later came a rig full of ham, turkey, chicken and roast beef.
If not for that exact sequence, the church would have had no place to keep the meat cold, said Mike Baumgartner, president and CEO of Disaster Assistance CoC.
“The Lord timed it perfectly,” Baumgartner said.
The congregation’s four elders — two of whom sustained damage to their own homes — put part-time youth minister Dylan Wood in charge of managing the relief work at the church building.
But Wood, a 20-year-old student at the Southeast Institute of Biblical Studies in Knoxville, said the outpouring of volunteers made his job easy.
“It’s just amazing,” he said, noting that Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort sent two truckloads full of food and supplies. “There’s a lot of good people in the world, and I’ve met about 2,000 of them in the last couple of days.”
In his sermon Sunday, Double Springs preacher Eric Collins fought back tears as he talked about finding Jesus in the storm.
“I found Jesus in the hugs of other individuals,” Collins said. “I found Jesus in the hands and feet of many of you who went out here and served.”
Treva Lawson was in bed when the tornado ripped off her roof and destroyed neighbors’ homes.
Lawson, whose husband, James, has dementia and resides in a nursing home, is a longtime member of the Double Springs church.
“Tennessee is the Volunteer State, and, boy, have they volunteered.”
She gushed over all the volunteers — many of them from Churches of Christ — who immediately came to help.
“Tennessee is the Volunteer State, and, boy, have they volunteered,” she said. “I don’t know how you can thank them. I’ve hugged so many necks.”
A short distance away, the tornado demolished Gary Flatt’s home as well as those of his parents and his nephew.
The Double Springs church member said his wife yelled at him about five seconds before the funnel cloud hit.
“We had started down to the basement … and then it slammed us into the basement,” he said, standing amid the flattened remains. “I ended up laying on top of her in the basement. … The wife was moaning and stuff. I yelled and heard my daughter screaming and yelling upstairs.”
But his whole family was OK, so he felt blessed, he said.
He voiced appreciation for his brothers and sisters in Christ who rushed to help with every need.
“Someone looked at the house and said, ‘It’s unbelievable what a tornado can do,’” Flatt said. “And I told them, ‘No, it’s unbelievable what a bunch of loving Christians can do.’
“It really is unbelievable,” he added. “Their power is a lot stronger than a tornado.”
Sometimes, that power can be as simple as offering a cup of coffee.
As the volunteer in the bright orange T-shirt delivered food and supplies, he was joined by Alexis, his 15-year-old daughter; Samuel Griffith, an 18-year-old member of the Green Hills Church of Christ in Nashville; and Lexie Savage, a 22-year-old member of the Willow Avenue church.
Greeting residents along the tornado’s path, Luke said he sees the secret to Christian relief work as this: “Just do what you can do.”
“We’re working for the Lord today,” he said as he shifted into park and approached another damaged home.
He knocked on the front door.
“You need a hot cup of coffee?” he asked. “What about cream and sugar?”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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