In battered Tuscaloosa, churches share the pain
Joni B. Hannigan, Baptist Press
May 03, 2011

In battered Tuscaloosa, churches share the pain

In battered Tuscaloosa, churches share the pain
Joni B. Hannigan, Baptist Press
May 03, 2011

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Trudging through the streets of

Tuscaloosa following the April 27 killer tornado, Billy Gray, interim director

of missions for the Tuscaloosa County Baptist Association, expressed shock at

the overwhelming destruction that made thousands homeless, caused a massive

power outage and left at least 38 people confirmed dead.

With estimated wind speeds of up to 200 mph, the EF4 tornado that left a

mile-wide debris field hit densely populated neighborhoods of Tuscaloosa,

snaking around the University of Alabama, the DCH Regional Medical Center and a

high school.

Entire communities were leveled, and at least half a dozen of the association’s

80-plus churches were heavily damaged.

People walked behind the police barricades, looking at the piles of timber that

used to be the walls of someone’s living room. They stared at trees flashing

their undersides, flipping up asphalt. They watched as workers stacked huge

power poles and waited for more to arrive. They walked in the blazing hot sun

and accepted a cool bottle of water. Their eyes lit up momentarily.

“We talked to some of these people. They are OK. They seem to be OK,” Gray

said. “They can laugh, but I know they are hurting.”

In Crescent Ridge, an area turned nearly to mulch by the twister, Gray said he

spoke with a recently widowed woman who lives close to all of her family. And

all of their homes had just been destroyed.

“They are OK as far as handling things, but in looking at the devastation, the

lady said, ‘Every once in a while I just have to cry, but I don’t make a

practice of it,’” Gray said. “I think that’s a good way to put it.”

Gray said he was looking forward to the arrival of Alabama Baptist disaster

relief chaplains who are trained in counseling those who are faced with loss

and grief. He was grateful for the volunteer team already serving alongside the

American Red Cross.

“I am extremely proud of our people,” Gray said. “I have been bombarded with

calls from people wanting to help. It’s a wonderful thing to see.”

On the scene since April 28, J.D. Beck, disaster relief team leader for the

Tuscaloosa association’s disaster relief unit, was overseeing feeding efforts

at a shelter operated by the Red Cross at Beck Park.

At the 24-hour shelter where an estimated 600 people have been staying since

before the storm, Beck said the 13 Alabama volunteers were joined by two from

the Southern Baptists of Texas Convention who were visiting when the storm hit.

The two had their gear packed and were ready, so they joined in.

One of the smallest units in the state, Beck said his volunteers nonetheless

are equipped to feed up to 2,000 people at each meal. At the Tuscaloosa site,

the volunteers were working alongside Red Cross workers to feed the 600 at the

shelter and to supply an additional 250 meals to about six vehicles used by the

Red Cross to distribute the food.

Beck, who has been involved in disaster relief work since 1994, said he

believes in caring for people, even if sometimes it’s behind-the-scenes work.

Standing tall beside a disaster relief trailer that holds cleaning supplies and

cooking equipment, Beck stopped for a moment to work out some details with a

Red Cross official about propane gas procurement.

Photo by Joni B. Hannigan

Tuscaloosa residents gather their salvageable belongings and carry them in a grocery cart that doubles as a stroller.

What Jesus said about the cup of water is what keeps Beck willing to volunteer

his time and effort.

“If you’ve done it unto the least of these, you’ve done it to me,” he said,

quoting Jesus.

Tuscaloosa churches damaged

At Hopewell Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, the tornado flipped a few shingles

from the roof but otherwise bypassed the imposing brick buildings and instead

tore into the neighborhood.

“Hot food and water” was advertised on a sign out front. Out back, some men

from the church were grilling hot dogs and hamburgers to give to those who

dropped by. Sandy Guy, director of women on mission, said the congregation is

praying for those who are suffering.

“We are truly blessed and thankful,” Guy said, noting that in the past three

weeks three storms had gone “around” the church.

Only 16 blocks away, at Alberta Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, winds blew the

steeple, roof and the front wall onto the steps, leaving mounds of insulation

and splintered wood hanging from a huge opening in the ceiling of the church’s

newly renovated sanctuary. The educational space also was heavily damaged.

Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa suffered extensive damage, Gray said,

and he was unsure whether the congregation would be able to continue to meet in

its facility.

Left standing in an otherwise nearly flattened older neighborhood, Forest Lake

Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa was being assessed for structural damage likely to

have occurred when the church was lifted off its foundation, Gray said. The

building was being used to store teacher supplies from the nearby elementary

school that was destroyed. After members and volunteers shuttered broken

windows and made other repairs, the church became a community center for food

and supplies.

“We are trying to get more resources out to them,” Gray said of Forest Lake


The sanctuary at Rosedale Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa has “quite a bit of

damage,” Gray said, but the congregation may be able to meet in the fellowship

hall for services. “That neighborhood is gone,” he said. “It is devastated.”

New Eastern Hills Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa sustained heavy damage with a

large hole in the wall, roof damage and windows being blown out. They will meet

elsewhere for a while, Gray said.

A few families from Temple Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa lost their homes, Gray

said, but the church received only mild damage. At rural Fleetwood Baptist

Church in Tuscaloosa, where some of the surrounding neighborhood was wiped out,

Gray said one member was killed and 14 members lost their homes.

Gary Bonner, associate director of missions for the Tuscaloosa association,

said he was happy churches are working together during the crisis and reaching

into their communities. The need is extensive, he said, and the disaster relief

effort needs to be ongoing.

“Not for a week or two weeks, and not even a month,” Bonner said. “We’ve never

had a tornado of this velocity come right through the center of town. There is

more loss of life than in the history of Tuscaloosa County.

“It’s going to take a long time. We really need to do everything we can to work

together and be patient,” Bonner said. “We are (going to) do everything we can

in the short term but be prepared to serve in the long term.”

Gray agreed. He said there is hope even for the people of Tuscaloosa.

“I would say to these people that God is with us through the bad times as well

as the good,” Gray said. “I think everybody — as bad as it is — we are going to

make it though, and we are (going to) come back.”

Relying on God, having a good attitude and supplying people with resources will

help in the long haul, Gray said.

“This has a way of rearranging your priorities,” Gray said, but people can look

at it and say, ‘OK, it’s bad, but we are (going to) make it.’”

(EDITOR’S NOTE — Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness

newspaper and wrote this article as a special correspondent for The Alabama

Baptist. View an e-edition of The Alabama Baptist with extensive tornado

coverage at online.thealabamabaptist.org. Donations to disaster relief can be

made to state conventions, or directly to the North American Mission Board’s

disaster relief fund, at NAMB.net, or by

calling 1-866-407-NAMB (6262). A $10 donation can be made by texting “NAMBDR”

to the number “40579.”)

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