CULLMAN, Ala. (BP) — “They’re coming here to grieve,” said Ken Allen, pastor of East Side Baptist Church in Cullman, Ala.
Current and former members of East Side Baptist — some who even remember it being built in 1955 — came back to see the rubble that was left after the EF4 tornado bulldozed through the city April 27.
At the church, where Allen has served as pastor for eight years, the tornado leveled the sanctuary, damaged the Sunday School area and severely damaged the church’s gymnasium. It also damaged the building where Cullman Christian Elementary School meets.
Communication was difficult since phone and power lines were down.
Allen stayed at the church all day April 28 to be pastor to the people gathering there. But the comforting was going both ways.
Many were reaching out to the Allen family, who had survived the storms in the church building.
Allen and his wife Sandra, their four children, East Side’s secretary and son and three church neighbors were huddled in the lower level of the church, beneath the stairwells, as the tornado was closing in on the Cullman area.
Allen recalled the events of the afternoon: He asked Sandra to pray aloud for the group.
She prayed fervently.
Allen was checking his computer for updates and eventually went to check the front of the church when he saw debris swirling from the tornado in the distance. At that point he told everyone to get down and get as far back in the corner as they could.
“God have mercy on us” flowed from Allen’s mouth as he made his way down the stairwell to his family.
The tornado came over the church, shattering glass and ripping away walls and the roof. But the group was unharmed.
They slowly made their way out the front doorway (the doors were gone) and saw something “very different than what it was before.”
Shocked by the condition of the area but humbled by God’s grace and protection, Sandra was thankful.
“What good is your faith if you can’t weather the storm?” Sandra said.
Her daughters — Haley, 17, and Abby, 12 — who had been sitting next to her in the stairwell agreed.
“I was shocked and scared,” Abby said. “But God protected us.”
Sandra reminded the girls and herself that God doesn’t always protect in the same way.
“When you see His hand of protection [like this],” Sandra said, “you can trust Him even when He lifts [His hand].”
Allen was pastor at Concord Highlands Baptist Church near Hueytown, Ala., when it was hit by an EF5 tornado in 1998. The small town of Concord again was hit in this round of storms as a large tornado sliced through the community and heavily damaged Concord Highlands once again.
As Allen thought back over the previous 24 hours that were “hazy” and the events that had occurred 12 years ago, the only thing he could clearly think to do was praise the Lord.
“Praise Him with us,” Allen said. “It’s easy to praise Him when the budget is fine and members are regularly attending, but what about when you’re not sure you have enough insurance to cover the damage or enough water to get you through the week?”
All of East Side’s members were accounted for by the morning of April 28, and none were injured or had severe home damage.
Randy Makemson, director of missions for East Cullman Baptist Association, confirmed that East Side Baptist was the only church in the association with damage.
Noting that East Side Baptist will have services at Christ Covenant Church in Cullman, Allen said, “The Cullman community is really stepping up.”
Ed Hayes, pastor of First Baptist Church in Cullman for nearly 28 years, would agree. Several people helped clean up debris around First Baptist Cullman after the same tornado ripped through downtown where the church sits.
The force of the tornado tore a large hole in the gymnasium roof, lifted one third of the sanctuary’s roof off, and destroyed a large section of the Sunday School and children’s area.
Built in 1951, the sanctuary had beautifully intricate stained glass windows, several of which were torn to the ground and mangled into a mess on the sanctuary floor.
The sanctuary was left unusable, but the gymnasium is reparable and was the planned location for upcoming worship services.
Jim O’Dillon, associate pastor for education and outreach at First Baptist Cullman, was still at the church when the tornado hit even though his wife had insisted on him returning home.
He was “Mr. Stubborn,” he said, and was finishing up the last two verses of a Sunday School study he was planning.
“I felt the wind get pulled out of me,” O’Dillon said, “… and then I heard the windows shatter.”
First Baptist Cullman had no member reports of fatalities or injuries in the immediate aftermath. Numerous families were without gas and power. Cullman was without a local supplier for gas, so the outage was expected to last several days. Cell phones also were “going in and out,” making communication difficult.
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.”