Photo: Jason Wallis
What Stands in a Storm
Even in rubble, even in pieces, the church was there for people to lean on. Even with their sanctuary flattened by the winds, their altar beneath a pile of bricks, the believers gathered by the ruins of their church, stuck a wooden cross in the Mississippi soil, and held church in the parking lot.
The lovely stained glass windows that lit a thousand prayers had been blown out. All but one. The fragile image of Christ, arms outstretched, still watched over Smithville Baptist Church. That it would survive, with just two small cracks, may or may not have been a sign. But to the people in the parking lot, who had just seen their town of Smithville scoured by the sky, it was not a matter to question. All they wanted was someone to help them make sense of it.
Pastor Wes White, a man who describes himself as a better hugger than a prophet, who was still wondering himself, did the best he could.
“We do not grieve as those who have no hope,” he said, paraphrasing Thessalonians. “I did four funerals in the past five days. I buried our dead, those we loved. It would be devastating if life on Earth was the end. But for the believer, there is no period at the end of our life, only a comma.”
* * * *
It was a time when people leaned hard on their churches, when they looked for miracles and found them. Here in Smithville, it was unbroken glass in a broken church. One hundred miles away in Alabama, it was a church that stood where nothing else did.
Standing in the ruins of a church that fell, or in the shadow of a church that stood alone, it bears the question: Why? Why did some stand, while others fell? Why were some prayers answered, and others seemingly unheard? What kind of God protects windows and lets mothers throw themselves on their babies, and die? Why them? Why not me?
These questions are unanswerable in a world built on logic. And when logic fails, what is left but faith?
“We have a hope beyond logic, beyond understanding,” said Pastor Wes. “I believe our God is going to take our devastation and turn it into something beautiful.”
* * * *
Three days after Easter the pastor sat on the red brick steps that had led to 521 Sunday sermons, and saw the black funnel cloud part the horizon. He turned to his youth minister and said, “It’s here.”
They sprinted across the parking lot to the Sunday school wing, the oldest and strongest part of the church, and ducked into a room where 11 others—children, parents, a small dog—were huddled together, terrified.
For 15 long seconds, the winds punched through the windows and pelted the people with pieces of trees and homes and dreams, peeled tiles off the ceiling, and tugged at them like a great, invisible hand trying to turn the church inside out. They held on to the door frames, to a bookshelf, to anything still there.
With a thunderlike clap, two large sheets of metal slammed over the nearest windows, shielding them from the blender of debris. One room over, the storm speared a 2 by 4 right through the wall. So loud was the roar that they did not hear the church fall.
* * * *
About 100 miles away in Holt, Alabama, another church stood. Untouched in a leveled landscape, it looked like that first red Monopoly house set down on an empty board.
Soma Church stands almost perfect. The windows are intact. All but two. The first one was broken by folks needing shelter from the storm. The second by people desperate for a place to triage just after the storm had passed.
The church became an oasis where you could find anything from Onesies and Ivory soap to cans of peas and carrots. It was also a place where people saw the Word of God stand up to a storm that had knocked everything else down.
“When we built this church, we put Bibles in the four corners of the building,” said Becky Lewellyn, a church member. “Underneath all that Sheetrock, there’s Scripture written in English and Spanish.”
Somewhere on a 2 by 4 is a handwritten favorite from Psalms: Unless the Lord builds the house, those who built it labor in vain.
“We wanted to be a beacon for the community in a time of devastation,” Becky said. “But we never expected anything like this.”
Pastor Shaun Faulkner, who lost his home in the storm, preached on the Sunday after the storm:
“There have been times throughout the history of mankind where tragedy has brought about a miracle of some sort, and a tangible presence of God among His people. I have never felt so much love and joy in the Spirit as I do now. I feel spiritually complete. I feel spiritually whole.”
* * * *
As people walk through the aftermath looking for answers, they find them in all sorts of places—even in an old children’s
rhyme, one played with interlaced fingers:
Here is the church, / Here is the steeple.
Open the doors / And see all the people.
Pastor Wes says that his greatest value in this trying time might be an old-fashioned notion of ministry that does not even need a church to hold it.
“My job is chief neck hugger,” he said. “I like to believe I can preach. But my real gift to communicate the Gospel is found in strong arms and a fluffy body.”