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Tornadoes kill at least 45, destroy church buildings

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (BP)–Tornadoes plagued the South for three days, killing at least 45 people in six states Thursday through Saturday, and damaging or destroying several Southern Baptist church buildings.

The storm system was the deadliest to hit the United States since February 2008 when 57 people were killed across the Southeast. In North Carolina alone, 62 tornadoes were reported and 23 people were killed Saturday night, according to USA Today.

Boone’s Chapel Baptist Church in Prattville, Ala., was heavily damaged by a tornado that struck the community Friday. The original brick structure, which was used as a chapel and the children’s education area, was a total loss, pastor Mike Johnson told The Alabama Baptist. The newer multipurpose section of Boone’s Chapel was damaged but should be reparable.

A father and his two adult children were killed in their homes on the edge of the Boone’s Chapel property. The church’s student minister lived in a home between the church and the two homes where the family members were killed, and his home was damaged by the tornado.

Members of Boone’s Chapel were out the next morning, helping however they could, The Alabama Baptist reported. As he pulled a file folder from the damaged church building, Johnson said, “There’s nothing like a tornado to change your sermon.” His sermon the next day would be from Lamentations 3 on the unfailing faithfulness of God. The congregation would meet at a local high school but expected to be back on their property on Easter Sunday.

“Our members are definitely saddened, because the chapel was a place with a lot of memories of baptisms, weddings and funerals,” Johnson told the North American Mission Board. “But the church was insured and we will rebuild.”

The church’s music minister may have saved the lives of Johnson and his wife, who had planned to seek shelter at the church. “But he talked me into staying put in our home. It was an intervention of God.”

About this time last year, Johnson was pastor of First Baptist Church in Albertville, Ala., when a tornado destroyed portions of that community. He believes that experience helped prepare him for the disaster and rebuilding process to come at Boone’s Chapel.

At the request of the local school board, four Southern Baptist disaster relief chaplains were counseling adults and children at Pine Level Elementary School near Boone’s Chapel Monday, according to Mel Johnson, disaster relief coordinator for the Alabama Baptist Convention.

“We’ve even already had some decisions for Christ,” Mel Johnson said, adding that 10 chainsaw and recovery teams with more than 100 volunteers have been deployed in Alabama.

In Virginia, the sanctuary at Zoar Baptist Church in Deltaville was destroyed along with 28 homes in the community. The Southside Sentinel reported that a tornado “tore the roof off of Zoar Baptist Church and knocked down the two side walls. A painting of Jesus above the altar was unscathed. The church fellowship hall also was damaged but not as severely.”

In Atoka, Okla., Hillcrest Baptist Church suffered structural damage particularly to one corner of the building, according to a pastor in the area.

Jeff Self, pastor of First Baptist Church in Coalgate, Okla., told Baptist Press he drove by Hillcrest, and it looked like the parsonage behind the church was destroyed. He wasn’t sure if the pastor had been living there.

“They had an educational building that was pretty well damaged too,” Self said. “Our area got hit pretty hard. I don’t know of any other churches in our association that were damaged. There probably are some, but we’re so spread out I don’t know. The whole town of Tushka is pretty much obliterated. I’m sure many church members have lost homes and lost everything.”

Tushka Baptist Church, Self said, had some roof damage and some broken windows as well as a damaged church van.

Richard Brunson, director of Baptist Men for the Baptist State Convention of North Carolina, said tornadoes were responsible for widespread damage from Raleigh to the eastern part of the state.

At least 1,500 North Carolina Baptist disaster relief volunteers have been mobilized in that state, Brunson said, and feeding stations are operating in Raleigh. Most of the feeding is for the recovery teams and volunteers, who are working out of Baptist churches in eight locations throughout North Carolina.

“We have a lot of good blue hats and coordinators in North Carolina who got the people out fast,” Brunson said. “The Raleigh feeding unit served 4,000 meals on Sunday.”

Many homes were completely destroyed, which necessitates lots of chainsaw and cleanup work, Brunson said. To his knowledge, no Southern Baptist churches were destroyed in North Carolina.

In Clinton, Miss., about 10 miles west of Jackson, two subdivisions were hit particularly hard, said Don Gann, disaster relief coordinator for the Mississippi Baptist Convention. At least 30 homes were damaged severely in Clinton, and 100 Clinton families remained out of their homes and were staying with relatives or in shelters.

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Gann, whose own Clinton home was spared damage when a tornado passed over on Friday. “Right now, we’re doing OK and don’t need any outside help. Mississippi folks just immediately started helping each other. But we know who to call if we do need help.”

Feeding sites were set up in Clinton, Leakesville and De Kalb, Gann said. The units prepared 800 meals on Saturday and another 600 on Sunday. In all, about 200 Mississippi Baptist volunteers were involved in feeding, chainsaw and assessment work in those three areas.
Compiled by Baptist Press assistant editor Erin Roach and North American Mission Board writer Mickey Noah.

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