MULHALL, Okla. (BP)–A providential malfunction in the hot water heater of their new home may have saved the lives of Troy and Trena Withey when a massive tornado hit Mulhall, Okla., May 3. Only a day after they moved into the parsonage of First Baptist Church, the home was leveled by a tornado that may have reached the level of F-4 — the second-highest rating on meteorologists’ Fujita Scale of tornado intensity.
Troy Withey had not even led his first service as the church’s new pastor when he witnessed the first miracle of his ministry. The Witheys had spent a long Monday cleaning the parsonage and unpacking boxes when they decided to shower and get ready for bed. But, for some reason, the hot water was gone.
“It had been working earlier in the day — we had done some dishes,” the pastor recounted. “But it just stopped working. It was just God delivering us.”
Church members John and Glenda Lough, who live about a mile north of town, offered their hot water to the Witheys, who soon came over. The Witheys’ two young sons were in Carney with their grandmother, and not at home.
The two couples kept their eyes on the local television reports about tornadoes bearing down on communities across the state.
Just before 10 p.m, Mulhall residents received their first warning about the monster bearing down on them. The two couples and a third family who also are members of the church took shelter in the Loughs’ storm cellar.
The Loughs’ property did not sustain a direct hit from the twister. The men emerged from the cellar at 11 to head toward town — without a clue about the destruction they would find.
In Mulhall, only a few houses and two public buildings — the post office and the United Methodist church — were left completely intact. “It took everything — everything,” Glenda Lough said.
The men looked in vain for the parsonage until they saw a debris-filled lot with a couple of the Witheys’ moving boxes sitting on it. The parsonage was blown completely from its foundation.
“If we had been in the house, there’s no way we would have survived,” Troy Withey said. “My first reaction was to realize we were simply blessed to be alive.”
Withey also said none of his 50 active church members was seriously injured, though the majority did suffer major property damage.
The church buildings, though not destroyed, sustained significant structural damage. Its worship center, built five years ago with volunteer labor, lost all its windows and about half its roof. The church’s main entry hallway’s ceiling is now open to the sky. Yellowish tufts of insulation hang in mournful strands from the metal grid that once held ceiling tiles in place. The old worship center, now a fellowship hall, suffered some minor damage, but was strong enough to serve as the local command post for the Logan County sheriff, who was coordinating relief and clean-up efforts.
The only other church in town — the Mulhall Christian Church — was completely destroyed.
By May 5, help already was pouring in from fellow believers. Groups from several Oklahoma Baptist churches rushed to Mulhall to help church members with clean-up. A team from World Relief Rescue Aid, a division of the National Association of Evangelicals, was in town to help the churches rebuild.
Scott Gammon, pastor of the Assembly of God church in Coyle, Okla., where Troy Withey previously was pastor of the Baptist church, showed up in Mulhall to offer extra pews and sound equipment to his old friends.
“We’re just going to do whatever we can — we’re all brothers in the Lord,” Gammon said.
But it still hurts. The Witheys — as many of their new flock — have lost several irreplaceable items. Gone are Troy Withey’s first shotgun, given to him when he was 15, and Trena Withey’s jewelry — save one earring, which she found a block away from the house.
“I cried,” she said. Nevertheless, she’s hopeful for nothing but victory from here on out. “There’s going to be an awesome future here. We’re going to rebuild together.”
Her husband echoed her enthusiasm. “We still believe in God’s call — that’s what we’re standing firm in now.”
As in all disasters, a healthy sense of humor also has helped Troy Withey through his dubious inauguration into Mulhall life. Already he is joking with his new congregation about the way they welcomed him to town: “If this is the way you greet new pastors, I’d sure hate to see how you kick one out!”
Marus is a staff newswriter for the Missouri Word & Way, on temporary assignment with the Oklahoma Baptist Messenger. (BP) photo posted in BP Photos section of Baptist Press area of www.sbc.net.