Ala. — The super cell storm that ripped
through Tuscaloosa and other Alabama
communities battered Bethel Baptist
Church in Pratt
The church had closed at 1:30 p.m.
April 27, letting preschool classes out early and canceling Bible study for the
first time anyone could remember. The storm system came through shortly after 6 p.m.
Winds of at least 140 miles an hour tore the roof off the gymnasium and
sanctuary and threw a church van into a ravine. The church’s daycare and offices
also were demolished.
In a phone interview, pastor T.S. Lewis said his goal was first to rebuild the
community, then work on the church damage.
“We’re still our church. We’re just a church without walls,” Lewis said.
Volunteers from Bethel Baptist arrived at 7 a.m.
the next day to move tables and chairs to a relief center at Scott
Elementary School on Hibernian
Street. The center had a generator, and although
people couldn’t sleep there, Lewis said they were providing food, clothes,
shoes and transportation.
“While they’re now homeless, we’re going to make sure they’re not hopeless,”
the pastor said.
In the first two days after the storm, cleanup crews looked for membership
records, tax files and any scrap of the church’s 114-year history they could
salvage, deacon Lee Anderson said. Bethel Baptist was rebuilt in 1990 on the
same lot, but the first church was established in 1897.
Like many members who helped clean up Friday, Anderson was too grateful for how
he and his loved ones survived the storm to be overwhelmed by the loss of the
“You don’t sorrow over what happened,” Anderson
said. “You pick yourself up and thank God you’re alive.”
Though most of the church was reduced to piles of bricks and wooden beams, some
rooms looked untouched. In the kitchen downstairs, plastic forks never moved
from their holders and serving spoons and tea pitchers hung undisturbed over
the stove throughout the storm.
About 350 troops from the National Guard patrolled Pratt
City after the storm for security
and support. Police roadblocks on Highway 78 prevented people from bringing
their cars into town, so people parked on the sides of the street and in
abandoned parking lots and walked to their homes.
In the wildest moments of the storm, Bethel Baptist members Rhonda Reed and
Shelisa Spencer said the only sound they heard was a long, deafening train
whistle. After the storm, there was an unreal silence, then the smell of gas.
The natural gas leaks were so powerful in Pratt
City that police pulled families
out of their homes the day after the storm so they could breathe slightly
fresher air, Reed said.
The next day, people wandered in the streets looking for their belongings,
disoriented because the storm uprooted street signs and leveled homes. An
apartment complex next to Bethel Baptist lost its second floor.
Spencer, 20, attended Bethel Baptist her entire life. “As soon as I saw the
church, I just broke down,” she said. “I broke down.”
Despite the damage to the church and neighborhood, the Bethel Baptist family
has remained intact. The church planned to meet for Sunday worship in the Fair
Park Arena in nearby Birmingham.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — View an e-edition of The Alabama Baptist with extensive
tornado coverage at online.thealabamabaptist.org. For information about
donations to Alabama Baptists’ disaster relief efforts, go to
http://www.alsbom.org/feature3. 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
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