COKER, Ala. (BP)–Climbing over fallen trees and beating through mounds of debris, TV news crews followed the trail of destruction in their search for Bethany Baptist Church in Coker, Ala., near Tuscaloosa.
The massive carnage of the wooded area left the reporters no doubt they were on the same path as the devastating tornado that had swept through moments before. Finally, after a frustrating search, they knew they were close.
“They told us they heard us singing,” said Melissa Franklin, who has attended the small country church of about 75 members all her life.
Franklin was one of 26 people trapped in a downstairs hallway Wednesday night, April 8, as the twister swirled overhead. As a teacher for the elementary-aged children, she said her kids were well prepared for what was in store.
“Our lesson that night, believe it or not, was on disaster relief,” said Franklin, adding the children handled the crisis bravely. Meagan Lafoy, 8, was one of the children who now has a good story to tell about her experience. She said it was the singing that calmed her, along with her own prayers she offered up during the turmoil.
“I was very scared,” said Meagan, adding, “but I asked him to be with us …
and he was!”
Linda Lafoy, Meagan’s mother, explained the group had heard about the inclement weather around 7 p.m. and moved downstairs into a hallway for a “round-robin prayer time.” She described an atmosphere of peace and closeness as the strong, violent winds beat down upon the building.
Ruby Hughes, minister of music and joyful survivor, said she didn’t fear death for one second during the ordeal. In fact, she called the impromptu hallway service — where the group sang everything from “Amazing Grace” to “Deep and Wide” — “some of the sweetest fellowship I’ve ever experienced.”
She added her priorities have changed since those 10 seconds when Bethany was in the eye of the storm and the palm of God’s hand.
“To that group in the church’s basement … we’re not going to be worried about the color of the carpet or things like that anymore,” Hughes said.
But after making sure no one was hurt, the one thing on everyone’s mind was getting the church ready for Easter services. Hughes noted that was not a problem — the group would meet in the parking lot if necessary.
But God met their needs. Pastor Jim Roberts led a packed house Sunday morning in what he called a “glorious service,” where members brought wildflowers and put them on a cross erected in the middle of the sanctuary. The jubilant worshipers looked up at the cracked ceiling tiles, which along with the vestibule, were the only real damage, as testimony to the saving grace they sang about.
Roberts preached on the hope Jesus offers — the same hope present in the basement as Mary and the others felt when the stone had been rolled away. “Just as Mary had seen him outside the empty tomb, we saw Jesus in our midst Wednesday night,” Roberts said. “This should give us the same unbridled joy she (Mary) had to share with everyone we come in contact with.”
And just after Hughes and the choir had finished a special cantata they had prepared for the service, the church’s power went out. Yet anyone happening outside the church, wondering about the parking lot full of cars and the darkened windows of the building, could still hear them singing.
Skinner is a correspondent with The Alabama Baptist newsjournal.