Alabama church shares heartbreak, hope

5/2/2011

7:00 A.M. EST May 3, 2011 | HARVEST, Ala. (UMNS)

Anna Aycock and Elam Wallace, students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, view the damage at Ford’s Chapel United Methodist Church.  UMNS photos by Kathleen Barry.
Anna Aycock and Elam Wallace, students at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, view the damage at Ford’s Chapel United Methodist Church. UMNS photos by Kathleen Barry.
View in photo gallery

View slideshow

Beneath sunny skies, people greeted one another with hugs, tears and comforting words.

It was a Sunday morning unlike any other at Ford’s Chapel United Methodist Church in north Alabama. Much of the surrounding community lay in ruins, and the church’s white steeple no longer rose from the sanctuary roof. During the tornadoes that roared through much of the U.S. South on April 27, the steeple was wrestled from the sanctuary roof and thrown to the ground.

“When we found the steeple,” said lay leader Mark Smith, “the lightning rod was still wrapped around it. The cables were twisted. You could tell it had been spinning.”

The sanctuary, just seven years old, remained intact, except for the hole where the steeple had been. The family life center and the original chapel did not fare as well.

Chains held up the wall of the demolished family life center, with the United Methodist cross-and-flame symbol still beckoning people to the church. A handful of high chairs and other baby equipment lined the walls inside the now off-limits structure. Outside, toddler toys — which the twister had strewn far from the fenced-in playground — had been rescued.

“The steel portions (of the family life center) are still structurally sound,” Smith said, “but the walls and roof will have to be torn down.” It is too early to say whether any part of the building is salvageable.

Someone had tenderly laid the stained-glass windows from the 141-year-old chapel on the ground, which was littered with splintered wood and insulation. One could still see hand-cut pegs hammered into 14-inch oak beams that had formed the original foundation of the chapel.

The Rev. Dorothy Ann Webster, pastor of Ford's Chapel, greets member Roger Carter with a hug as he arrives for the Sunday service.  Carter's home was destroyed by an April 27 tornado.
The Rev. Dorothy Ann Webster, pastor of Ford's Chapel, greets member Roger Carter with a hug as he arrives for the Sunday service. Carter's home was destroyed by an April 27 tornado.
View in photo gallery

“We’re going to try to preserve as many of these windows as we can,” said member Jack Wolfe.

Ford’s Chapel, organized in 1808, is considered the oldest Methodist church in Alabama.

“When the Methodists decided to spread the church,” Wolfe explained, “this was the first place they stopped.” Among circuit rider James Gwinn’s earliest converts was the Ford family, which deeded land to the fledgling church.

From Good Friday to Easter

On May 1, the Sunday after the tornadoes, about 200 members and other area residents gathered in the semidarkness of a sanctuary still without electricity.

“Last week,” the Rev. Dale R. Cohen, Northeast District superintendent told the congregation, “we went through Good Friday, and last Sunday, we got to Easter.

“This past Wednesday, we were back at Good Friday, but this week, we are at Easter again.”

The “Good Friday” experience April 27 destroyed the original chapel — dating to 1870—and the family life center, and it left three church families homeless.

But the mood was one of thanksgiving—for the safety of church members and for the fact that the more than 100 Mothers Day Out participants, who met in the family life center, were sent home early that fateful day.

At the altar were a clock, battered and stopped at 4:27, the exact time the power went out; the 200-year-old church bell, which was tossed 100 feet across the road; the lightning rod and cables that had been attached to the steeple, and a framed plaque bearing the names of pastors dating back to 1808.

Quoting from Ecclesiastes 3, the Rev. Dorothy Ann Webster, Ford's Chapel pastor, reminded worshippers that God provides times “to laugh, cry, mourn, build up — even … to tear down.”

Calling the past few days “an amazing week with amazing experiences,” she said new stories are being written — stories of neighbors helping neighbors, of the terror of the tornado, of the grace of survival and the pain of loss.

Ford’s Chapel member Mike Carstenson surveys the damage caused by an April 27 tornado to the church’s original chapel, which was destroyed.
Ford’s Chapel member Mike Carstenson surveys the damage caused by an April 27 tornado to the church’s original chapel, which was destroyed. View in photo gallery

Recalling two stories, she said that during the tornado, the church’s preschool director had huddled with neighbors under a porch. When the children began to get anxious, she began leading them in “This Little Light of Mine.”

A similar story came from a school nurse who encouraged those seeking refuge with her to sing “Amazing Grace.” After the storm, people walking through a nearby pasture found the page for “Amazing Grace” ripped from the hymnal.

“Stories help us learn and heal and grow,” Webster said. “Let’s keep telling these stories and remember our true help is in God.

‘Keep our light shining’

Joining the United Methodists for worship were members of Incarnation, a new Evangelical Lutheran Church in America congregation, which had arranged with Ford’s Chapel to meet in the little chapel and had, in fact, celebrated Easter there the previous week.

For now, the two congregations will worship together in the main sanctuary.

Events like the tornado “remind us of what’s important and what’s not important,” the Rev. Mark Borseth, the ELCA pastor, said.

Webster shared God’s promise of a “new day of peace, joy and hope that help us keep our light shining in the darkness.”

As worship ended, the congregation lit candles and sang “This Little Light of Mine.”

After the service, members wandered around the church campus, recalling memories and snapping photographs.

Items that survived the tornado at Ford's Chapel include a lightening rod, a bell, a clock and framed plaque listing pastor’s names. The bell, which weighs at least 85 pounds, was found 100 feet from the church. The clock shows the time the power went out April 27.
Items that survived the tornado at Ford's Chapel include a lightening rod, a bell, a clock and framed plaque listing pastor’s names. The bell, which weighs at least 85 pounds, was found 100 feet from the church. The clock shows the time the power went out April 27. View in photo gallery

“Just north of here,” lay leader Smith said, “it looks like someone took a building and put it in a blender and spit it out.”

“It just makes you cry,” Wolfe added.

Driving down Ford Chapel Road, one sees brick homes untouched by the powerful winds. But going a bit farther, the view is one of volunteers pushing wheelbarrows of debris, bulldozers pushing giant trees pulled up by the roots and, saddest of all, once-beautiful houses reduced to rubble.

The day after the tornado, trustee Frank Cochran went to the church at 6:30 a.m. He’s been there every day since, marshaling the many people who show up to help.

“When I drove up (the first day) and started walking around, I saw one piece of furniture standing upright — the altar” from the chapel, he said. The baptismal font was knocked over but OK.

“We just started trying to make things safe. We’re about finished with that process.”

‘The church is the people’

“We’ve had people from a lot of other churches come here the past few days,” Smith said.

The Rev. Wren Miller, associate pastor at First United Methodist Church in nearby Huntsville, was at the worship service. She’s been busy working with volunteers, doing a little bit of everything.

Song leader Ruth Smith leads the congregation in singing This Little Light of Mine during the May 1 worship service.
Song leader Ruth Smith leads the congregation in singing "This Little Light of Mine" during the May 1 worship service.
View in photo gallery

Older children, for example, are expert sandwich makers, she said. They made “a couple hundred” for people in the neighborhood.

Cubmaster Jeanine McMillan is teaching her young charges about volunteerism as well. “They are going around the community, handing out food and water,” she said.

“We’re in uniform so people know that we appreciate the church and will do whatever it takes,” said Patrick Wofford of Troop 86.

“I tell the Scouts,” McMillan added. “‘This is just like going to camp. We have water, cold showers and a dry place to sleep.”

Member Patsy Smartt is optimistic about the future.

“We’re totally confident this is going to make us closer and stronger.”

Another member, Anna Aycock, 17, came home to Harvest from the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa, where the school year ended early. She echoed Smartt’s attitude.

“I think the church is going to be fine,” she said. “The church is the people, not the building.”

*Dunlap-Berg is internal content editor for United Methodist Communications.

News media contact: Barbara Dunlap-Berg, Nashville, Tenn., 615-742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.