After tornado, worshipers see church as more than a building

Tornadoes ripped through Nashville, Tennessee, damaging several churches Tuesday. But worshipers were grateful that didn't stop Sunday services. 

AP Photo/Mark Humphrey
Electrical worker Kurt Chandler, center, stops and listens during a worship service in a tent at Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, on Sunday, March 8, 2020, in Nashville, Tennessee

Bobbie Harris lost her rental home, her job, and her church when a deadly tornado struck her community in North Nashville. But all she could think about was her blessings.

“Through it all, God is good,” Ms. Harris said.

Ms. Harris joined other members of Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church on Sunday to worship just outside the ruins of the church, which has been in the community for 135 years. The roofs of their two church buildings are gone, ripped away by strong winds early Tuesday.

The church pitched a tent in the parking lot and the congregants gathered to sing, pray, and hold hands in what the church called “worship in the rubble.” Even contractors who were busily trying to replace downed power lines paused and took off their hard hats as Pastor Jacques Boyd led the congregation in prayer on the sunny, windy morning.

The National Weather Service has said at least six tornadoes hit middle Tennessee during last week's storms that killed 24 people and caused massive damage in parts of Middle Tennessee.

Ms. Harris lived only blocks away from the church, where she also worked as a cook. When the tornado hit her home, the powerful winds grabbed her air conditioning unit and flung it into a fence across the street. Her granddaughter’s car was destroyed.

“God is good. He was the conductor on that train and he went around me,” Ms. Harris said. “He saved me.”

Mr. Boyd told his congregation that the storm was a challenge from God and had brought everyone closer together in the recovery efforts. Behind him, bits of insulation blew around in the breeze and the wooden beams that once held up the roof of the chapel were exposed. Many of the neighboring homes were still without power Sunday and blue tarps covered roofs nearby. But under the white tent, there were smiles on people's faces as they greeted each other, danced to the music and sung hymns.

“Nashville is now primed to show the world what we’re made of,” said Mr. Boyd, in blue suit, as people responded “Amen.”

The church, with a congregation of about 300 people, held before- and after-school care for children, had a gymnasium where kids from the neighborhood could go, put on summer camps for children, and provided computer literacy classes for its older congregants.

“We must trust in the savior who does not deliver us from storms, but through storms,” he told the clapping congregation.

But Mr. Boyd said the church was more than the red brick building behind him. “Now that the brick and mortar is gone, do you still love this community?” he asked as his choir raised their hands and voices in response.

Mr. Boyd said the church will continue to hold its services inside the tent. In the meantime, they are hoping other institutions will help the church continue to provide their community services.

Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee and his wife, Maria, sat in the front row of the folding chairs, shook hands with the church members and bowed their heads in prayer.

“There was a lot of hope here,” Mr. Lee said. “God uses people like this in this environment to bring hope to this community, and it was great to see.”

Mr. Boyd said that as soon as he saw the demolished buildings, he prayed for guidance.

“I asked God, ‘What do I say in moments like this?’” Mr. Boyd said. “And God spoke clearly, as I am speaking to you now. You have to help while hurting.”

The Mount Bethel church wasn't alone. 

The East End United Methodist Church in Nashville was also severely damaged by a tornado. On Facebook, they encouraged their congregation to bring lawn chairs and worship in a park near their building Sunday. "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. Come join us for worship at the East End UMC Park."

Some Nashville churches were reaching out to their religious neighbors and offering to share their edifices.

For example, the Braden United Methodist Church worshipped at Gordon Memorial, and Hermitage United Methodist Church's Andrew Jackson campus hosted Dodson Chapel members Sunday, the Tennessean reported. 

This story was reported by The Associate Press. 

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