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Pastor: Tornado signals ‘winds of change’

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)–“Winds of change” blew through Greater Little Rock Baptist Church in Pensacola Oct. 18, ripping off half the roof and shattering its nearby daycare center.

But even an F1 tornado won’t destroy Lonnie D. Wesley III’s resolve. The 13,000-square-foot sanctuary isn’t the church, he told the Florida Baptist Witness. The people are.

The day before, a twister with winds up to 110 mph left Pensacola Naval Air Station before cutting a 150-yard-wide path from the church daycare to the massive Noah’s Ark-inspired church structure. It peeled back a green metal roof, blew down doors and dislodged pieces from the church steeple. Winds and rain scattered yellow insulation and metal debris like graffiti over the modest neighborhood.

“You can have a fine building, but this building is not the church,” Wesley said. “Our light is to shine with or without a building. Brick and mortar doesn’t make it. Only what we do for Christ lasts.”

No one was hurt at the church or the daycare center, Wesley said, crediting the instructors for their quick actions and thoughtful care — and for the fact that they followed their instincts — even though there were no tornado warnings.

“I’m proud of that daycare, and I’m proud of the church,” Wesley said. “This is a strong, strong church and she’s been a strong church for a long, long time.”

Noting that the 78-year-old congregation has been a pillar of the community, Wesley said the loss of the building could be compared with the sadness of losing a family member, but at the same time acknowledged: “God is sovereign. As long as we remember that, our resolve will even be stronger because He may allow certain things that we call disasters to happen, but He will never put more on us than we can bear.”

Greater Little Rock Baptist is one of the largest African American Southern Baptist churches in the Pensacola area with more than 600 members. The sanctuary sits on the historic site of the Booker T. Washington High School, Pensacola’s first African American high school, founded in 1916.

“When African Americans could not go by law to other schools, there was one school they could go to and it was sitting right here — and to a lot of those people who were blessed to live then and are still with us now, this ground holds a special place in their hearts,” Wesley said. “For those who are members of the church, they still feel they are learning a lot now. It’s a blessing.”

The church also has ties to retired Dallas Cowboys’ running back Emmitt Smith, who grew up attending the church and helped finance the sanctuary which was completed in 1998. Smith’s mother, Mary Smith, is an active member of the congregation and was assisting with clean up at the church site Oct. 19.

Sunday morning worship took place Oct. 21 at the Old Landmark Church in Pensacola, the original site of Greater Little Rock Baptist, previously used as an annex for Wednesday night youth meetings, about half a mile from the damaged sanctuary. Overflow seating accommodated 40 in an adjacent classroom for the first of two services.

Two ladies dressed in black skirts and white blouses smiled greetings to worshipers filing in.


“Welcome back to the old church!”

Children skipped between parent’s hands. Dads ushered in sons. Young men lent their arms to elderly women. Boys brushed on by. Girls smiled shyly. Women laughed.

Inside, reading from Psalms 121:1-2, Wesley said: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help. My help cometh from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.”

Calling the congregation to the altar to pray, Wesley reminded them something happened Oct. 18 and that “now is not the time to stop praying.”

Swallowing hard as the praise team led the congregation in the chorus, “Grateful,” he wiped a tear away before stepping up to the pulpit to preach on prayer.

Dismissing the “world’s” speculation about why a tornado might have damaged the church, Wesley said too many people try to insinuate that the church is “not doing something right,” calling preachers crooks, adulterers or child molesters.

“What the world doesn’t understand is my mysterious kind of God,” Wesley said, noting He is the same God who in the New Testament Book of John used the same wind to tell Nicodemus he must be born again, and in the Old Testament Book of Ezekiel used the wind to rattle dry bones.

“If you have experienced God moving in your life, that’s the wind of God,” Wesley said. “And if that wind of God blowing in your life has not changed you, then you are not saved at all because the winds of change start with salvation.

“The winds of change bring about change and when the winds of change blew down ‘A’ Street last Thursday, God has said, ‘I’m bringing about a change.'”

Wesley challenged the congregation to draw closer to God in the wake of the tornado and in the challenge of the days ahead as the church anticipates its needs.

“When the winds of change blow your way, open up your heart and let the Lord come in. Don’t worry about the world,” Wesley said.

Wesley told the Witness he has heard from Florida Baptist pastors and Florida Baptist Convention personnel and is encouraged by their prayers and support.

“I am thankful to God for the outpouring of support the body of the church is showing to us at this time,” Wesley said. “It is evident that someone is praying for us. There is a lot to do.”

Fritz Wilson, who heads Florida Baptists’ disaster relief and recovery, told the Witness the convention will support them through the process of getting back on their feet.

“We will be there to help them through the rebuilding and recovery process,” Wilson said. “In the next several weeks we will begin to see how we can help them through the long term.”

Ron Lentine, pastor of nearby Myrtle Grove Baptist Church, responded to the crisis immediately after the tornado and was one of the first pastors on site. He had offered use of his multi-purpose building and gymnasium to Greater Little Rock.

“Our hearts go out to this fellow pastor,” Lentine said. “We want to do all we can to help and support him in his time of need. We care about this congregation and the people involved.”

Lentine heads a faith-based organization in the area formed after the recent past historic hurricane seasons and emphasizing hurricane preparedness and planning for what to do in a hurricane’s aftermath.

“Frankly, people are still thinking about hurricanes and this tornado just sort of took us by surprise,” Lentine said.
Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, newsjournal of the Florida Baptist Convention, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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