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Now, ‘We’re just a church without walls’

PRATT CITY, Ala. (BP)–The super cell storm that ripped through Tuscaloosa and other Alabama communities battered Bethel Baptist Church in Pratt City.

The church had closed at 1:30 p.m. April 27, letting preschool classes out early and canceling Bible study for the first time anyone could remember. The storm system came through shortly after 6 p.m.

Winds of at least 140 miles an hour tore the roof off the gymnasium and sanctuary and threw a church van into a ravine. The church’s daycare and offices also were demolished.

In a phone interview, pastor T.S. Lewis said his goal was first to rebuild the community, then work on the church damage.

“We’re still our church. We’re just a church without walls,” Lewis said.

Volunteers from Bethel Baptist arrived at 7 a.m. the next day to move tables and chairs to a relief center at Scott Elementary School on Hibernian Street. The center had a generator, and although people couldn’t sleep there, Lewis said they were providing food, clothes, shoes and transportation.

“While they’re now homeless, we’re going to make sure they’re not hopeless,” the pastor said.

In the first two days after the storm, cleanup crews looked for membership records, tax files and any scrap of the church’s 114-year history they could salvage, deacon Lee Anderson said. Bethel Baptist was rebuilt in 1990 on the same lot, but the first church was established in 1897.

Like many members who helped clean up Friday, Anderson was too grateful for how he and his loved ones survived the storm to be overwhelmed by the loss of the church building.

“You don’t sorrow over what happened,” Anderson said. “You pick yourself up and thank God you’re alive.”

Though most of the church was reduced to piles of bricks and wooden beams, some rooms looked untouched. In the kitchen downstairs, plastic forks never moved from their holders and serving spoons and tea pitchers hung undisturbed over the stove throughout the storm.

About 350 troops from the National Guard patrolled Pratt City after the storm for security and support. Police roadblocks on Highway 78 prevented people from bringing their cars into town, so people parked on the sides of the street and in abandoned parking lots and walked to their homes.

In the wildest moments of the storm, Bethel Baptist members Rhonda Reed and Shelisa Spencer said the only sound they heard was a long, deafening train whistle. After the storm, there was an unreal silence, then the smell of gas.

The natural gas leaks were so powerful in Pratt City that police pulled families out of their homes the day after the storm so they could breathe slightly fresher air, Reed said.

The next day, people wandered in the streets looking for their belongings, disoriented because the storm uprooted street signs and leveled homes. An apartment complex next to Bethel Baptist lost its second floor.

Spencer, 20, attended Bethel Baptist her entire life. “As soon as I saw the church, I just broke down,” she said. “I broke down.”

Despite the damage to the church and neighborhood, the Bethel Baptist family has remained intact. The church planned to meet for Sunday worship in the Fair Park Arena in nearby Birmingham.
Neisha Fuson writes for The Alabama Baptist. View an e-edition of The Alabama Baptist with extensive tornado coverage at online.thealabamabaptist.org. For information about donations to Alabama Baptists’ disaster relief efforts, go to http://www.alsbom.org/feature3. Donations to disaster relief can be made to state conventions, or directly to the North American Mission Board’s disaster relief fund, at NAMB.net, or by calling 1-866-407-NAMB (6262). A $10 donation can be made by texting “NAMBDR” to the number “40579.”

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  • Lindsey Robinson