SALADO, Texas (BP) – Tornadoes can hit with an unheralded ferocity.
On April 12, weather reports indicated a “slight chance” of severe weather in this Central Texas town of about 3,000 residents located down Interstate 35 between Waco and Austin. Donnie Jackson, pastor of First Cedar Valley Baptist Church, heard the reports. After radar indicated a strong and building storm was heading their way, he and his son, Donnie Van, watched from the porch as his wife, Linda, took the grandchildren inside to huddle inside a closet.
The two men would soon join the rest of the family.
“All of the sudden it just exploded,” the pastor said. “We couldn’t see the tornado, there were too many trees – but we sure could hear it.”
The EF-3 tornado that swept over them made a deafening noise, mixing in with the sound of baseball-sized hailstones pelting their metal roof, crying children and prayer.
Then it was over.
They emerged after about five minutes to see the property intact – the first sign of destruction some 300 yards away. “All I could hear were sirens from every direction,” Jackson said.
The five-acre church property about a mile-and-a-half from the pastor’s home told a different story.
Historic church continues ministry
“The tornado wiped out everything,” Jackson said. Large oaks and 200-year-old cedars were uprooted and tossed into piles. All that remained of First Cedar Valley Baptist’s 13-year-old modern structure was its slab foundation and its cross, anchored to the foundation. Thankfully, the storm did not cause any fatalities, but many lifelong friends lost property.
The “new” church was gone. The historic church building – dating from 1942 when it was little more than a brush arbor enclosed over a dirt floor – still stood, though it had suffered structural damage and proved unsalvageable. Jackson and congregation finished tearing it down a few weeks ago, he said, choking up a bit.
“It’s a difficult time for us,” he said. “A lifetime of memories. What held those memories is now gone.”
Jackson had known the historic building since boyhood. By age 15, he was leading the music there, the first of many stints as a lifelong worship leader in the various cities and churches he served while working as a businessman full time. Jackson recalled his uncle lighting kerosene lanterns and hanging them on cedar support posts in the old church before it had electricity.
Now it’s time for the church to rebuild, and they have started. And services have continued.
On Easter Sunday, less than a week after the disaster, First Cedar Valley held worship on its bare slab, the service covered by area news outlets.
“Nothing’s going to stop church from happening. It’s always gonna happen,” 11-year-old churchgoer Asa Gooden told news crews.
“That building means nothing compared to the cross and what He did for us,” Jackson proclaimed from his Easter pulpit, gesturing to the surviving cross in the background.
A tent has since been erected, and a church member who is a builder has arranged for a temporary building. They intend to build back on the same foundation, using the same plans but with a few modifications, such as reconfiguring interior walls to allow for more meeting areas and less office space.
A lifetime of ministry
Jackson has only been pastor of FCVB for just over two years. Following a career as a national operations manager for a retail chain, he returned with his wife and family to the Salado area when their kids were school-aged. The Jacksons purchased a convenience store off I-35, which they owned and operated for 21 years, from 1976-1997. The pastor wanted his children to share the same small-town youth experiences he had known.
It was natural that a return to Salado meant Jackson again began to serve his childhood church as a worship leader.
“I’ve always been involved in gospel music,” he said. In fact, from 2000-2008, the Cedar Valley Singers, consisting of Donnie, Linda, and three other church members, performed as a popular statewide gospel attraction until the demands became too great.
The last three or four years, the Lord called him to preach, Jackson said. He began to fill pulpits and, when the FCVB pastor stepped down because of health concerns, he was asked to become the full-time pastor. COVID-19 hit and in-person attendance waned, but livestreamed services kept the congregation worshiping.
“During COVID, our small country church was down to 10 or 12 people attending. We now run 45-60,” Jackson said.
The tornado may have destroyed its building but that hasn’t pushed pause on the church’s recovery. A family of five joined after the storm.
At 77, Jackson has seen his share of ups and downs, replete with God’s provision. He hopes to leave First Cedar Valley to an eventual successor on a firm foundation in more ways than one, following the tornado.
“You’ve got to accept what is. Don’t look at what was. Look at what is to come,” Jackson said. “It’s been hard in the flesh, but I believe Romans 8:28. I don’t know what God’s purpose is, but we’ll be stronger. We’ll reach more people than we would have been able to reach.”