By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
Alabamians woke up March 20 to images of their tornado-tracked state, a scene all too familiar.
But Roger Willmore said there’s a sight he wishes everyone could see — how Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief (ABDR) teams have descended on his part of the state.
“This operation is working like a well-oiled machine,” said Willmore, director of missions for Calhoun Baptist Association, which covers the hard-hit Jacksonville area. “This is my first experience with disaster relief and it has been remarkable to see our people work. I wish all Alabama Baptists could see what I’ve seen.”
Trained chainsaw and cleanup teams from Baptist associations around the state worked for several days in Jacksonville, where an EF-3 tornado hit March 19.
The storm, which had 140-mile-per-hour winds, started in Southside and raked its way east across Jacksonville and into Georgia. On its way, it plowed right through the middle of West Point Baptist Church, Jacksonville, and Rabbittown Baptist Church, Piedmont.
West Point Baptist was almost a total loss. Rabbittown Baptist lost its fellowship hall.
But Ronny Moore, pastor of West Point, said his church was in good spirits.
“A tornado can’t destroy the church,” he said. “God is in control of it and He’s going to bring us through it.”
The congregation is sad to lose their well-loved buildings, but Moore said they are trying to focus on how God can use this for their good.
“A new Sunday School class had started two weeks ago and it took up our last empty classroom. We were already thinking of where to go from here,” Moore said. “So as we rebuild, we can plan for growth. We’ve got an opportunity to change things.”
Bobby DuBois, associate executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions (SBOM), delivered a check March 21 to West Point with funds given through the Cooperative Program and the Myers-Mallory State Missions Offering to help with recovery.
“It’s such a blessing to know that we aren’t alone,” Moore said. “We are very appreciative. We know we’ve got a long road ahead of us.”
Staying close by
Multiple local churches have offered to house the West Point congregation until it rebuilds, but Moore said for now they plan to meet in the nearby Pleasant Valley Elementary School to keep the congregation as close to its original site as possible.
“The church is OK — it is very much alive and this is not going to stop the church,” Moore said.
Kenneth Hutto, pastor of Rabbittown Baptist, said spirits were high at his church too despite the loss of their fellowship hall.
“We’ve been praising the Lord for sparing life and that no one was hurt in our community or church,” he said. “That’s a blessing in and of itself. And as we’ve rallied, we’ve become stronger and even more united.”
The church met by candlelight for Wednesday night services in its sanctuary, which lost power in the storms.
Church members also had a number of opportunities to talk with members of the community as they stopped by to see the damage and help out, Hutto said, noting that he hoped that would open doors in the future to follow up with those relationships.
“God has graciously been glorified in all this,” he said.
Hutto also said the church’s three crosses set out on the lawn for Easter had drawn some attention from passersby.
“The two crosses on the outside looked as if they had just been pulled out of the ground and laid down. The one in the middle is still standing just like it was. We thought that was a strong testimony in and of itself,” he said. “A lot of people have been talking about it.”
The church planned to keep using the storms as a chance to point to Jesus, Hutto said.
As the tornado swept through, the Baptist Campus Ministries building at Jacksonville State University also sustained some repairable roof damage, and area residents saw widespread damage to homes.
While ABDR teams worked in the Jacksonville and Rabbittown area to help residents clean up, other teams set up in Southside, working out of the city’s First Baptist Church. A feeding unit from First Baptist Church, Trussville, also arrived March 22.
Baptist teams fanned out across northern Alabama, which experienced at least nine confirmed tornado touchdowns March 19.
Each ABDR team working statewide had a chaplain accompanying them, and an entire team of chaplains was set to arrive in Jacksonville on March 24 to walk the neighborhoods and minister to the community as needed.
“We anticipate being mostly done with disaster relief work at the end of the weekend,” said Mark Wakefield, SBOM disaster relief and chaplaincy ministries strategist for Alabama Baptists.
Jacksonville’s First Baptist Church and Eagle Point Church had been “tremendous” host partners, housing teams and providing needed space, Wakefield said.
“I’ve been grateful for our associational partnerships and those churches who have really reached out to help our volunteers because it does take electricity and internet to keep things rolling,” he said. “If it weren’t for those churches and associations we would have to buy huge command posts and roll them up and set up somewhere.”
Other state Baptists have found creative ways to help, such as Lookout Mountain Baptist Association, which took 70 storage tubs to disaster relief distribution sites in Southside and Riddles Bend.
“The people there were very thankful but very surprised that storage tubs would be a donated item in a time like this,” said Lloyd Borden, director of missions for Lookout Mountain Association. “They could not believe it and agreed with us that it would be something an affected family could use right now and for a time to come.”
Disaster relief teams from Samaritan’s Purse also joined ABDR at work in the Jacksonville and Southside areas.
Willmore said the tremendous combined effort has been a blessing to watch.
“It’s just an army of men and women that are really passionate about helping people in a crisis time,” he said.
To donate or learn how you can help, visit sbdr.org.