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After tornado cancels Easter outreach, Illinois church shifts gears to serve

After a tornado struck the community of Sherman, Living Faith Baptist Church quickly switched gears, canceling its planned Easter outreach event and instead serving village workers, power company crews and first responders.

SHERMAN, Ill. (BP) – Living Faith Baptist Church had planned to host its annual Easter Palooza outreach event on April 1. Thousands of plastic Easter eggs had been filled with candy, cakes were baked for the cake walk, and church members had packed hundreds of grab-and-go sack lunches for the 300-500 kids who were expected to attend. But a tornado that struck the night before prompted a big change in plans.

With tornado damage and no electricity, Easter Palooza could not go on. But something else could. Church members quickly shifted gears – slicing cakes and repurposing goodie bags for community recovery efforts. It was no April Fool’s joke as they showed up in the darkened building at 8 a.m. to prepare to serve first responders and neighbors displaced by the tornado.

Living Faith Baptist’s Meal Coordinator Steve Miller packs grab-and-go sack lunches.

“Our building suffered damage to the roof, soffits and siding,” said interim pastor Jack Lucas, who is also church leadership director for the Illinois Baptist State Association. “The exterior walls in the fellowship hall and sanctuary have been pushed out and separated along the roof line. We were to have held our largest outreach event of the year today. Instead, the congregation transitioned to preparing meals for first responders and work crews.”

The tornado that hit Sherman was part of a system of strong storms and tornadoes that tore through the Midwest and South on Friday, March 31, and into the early hours of Saturday morning killing at least 32 people. Four of those who died were in Illinois – one in Belvidere and three in Robinson.

The tornado hit the community of Sherman just after 6 p.m. while 35 people were in the church fellowship hall having dinner prior to the start of their Celebrate Recovery meetings. That’s when tornado sirens began to sound, and as they moved into the church’s storm shelters the power went out.

Church member John Bryant directed them to the shelters, which were the men’s and women’s restrooms just off the main entrance. He described stepping out from the shelter and looking west through the foyer’s glass doors and seeing the “darkness of the tornado.” Then he rushed back toward the shelters and told everyone to “huddle down.”

“We could hear the debris blowing around and hitting the building for a few minutes,” Bryant said. As the sound begin to die down, he said the church building made a loud “oof” sound stretching his arms out wide as if expanding.

They waited about five minutes and then came out to survey the damage. The wind had been so strong, he said, rain had blown in about five inches under the doors into the church. Outside they could see shingles, siding and soffit damage. It wasn’t until the next morning, in daylight, church members would find the tornado had pushed the fellowship hall and sanctuary walls on the building’s east side out about 2½ inches.

Just across the road from the church, about 40 homes in the Brittin Place neighborhood sustained serious damage, but there were no deaths and no known serious injuries. Power lines and trees were down blocking many of the roads surrounding the church following the tornado. Those leaving the church Friday night had to take country back roads to and travel to the small town of Andrew to find their way back to main roads to travel home. Many main roads were still blocked Saturday morning with police allowing only first responders and local residents into Brittin Place.

Members of the Laborers Disaster Response Team working in the Brittin Place neighborhood take a few minutes to eat before getting back to work.

The husband-and-wife team of Steve and Carol Miller are the church’s meal coordinators.

Steve shared how he began making phone calls immediately after the tornado passed to put a plan in place. He reached out to the town’s mayor and asked how the church could help. “I thought we could serve first responders and the community,” he said.

“We already had all this food.” said Carol. “What we’re doing is a better fit for the circumstances.”

They got the word out online and it began to spread. The local County Market grocery store provided 100 free fried chicken dinners with an offer for more if it was needed – and it was.

A couple hundred meals were served to village workers, power company crews and first responders including members of the Laborers Disaster Response Team, a volunteer group dispatched through the Illinois Emergency Management Agency. Most came in and grabbed meals to go or sent a representative in to bring meals to them on the field. Volunteers from the church working as first responders also took meals out to them. Church members brought in portable generators to run power into the bathroom facilities. With no portable toilets available, word quickly spread that the church was making its facilities available to workers, crews and first responders as well.

“I have heard more than one member state that God has allowed us a greater opportunity to serve our community this Easter season,” Lucas said. “I was very blessed to look around and see so many of our people serving and focusing on our community rather than our own issues.”

“God worked today,” said Steve who took delivered food to the damaged neighborhood. “People were in tears but encouraged to see the church out coming to them.

“I just did what I could and let God do the rest.”

    About the Author

  • Lisa Misner/Illinois Baptist