The twister exploded the historic building and a 2-year-old adjacent fellowship and educational building onto the church's cemetery, its powerful winds knocking flat the heavy headstones and spewing the churned up contents nearly two miles into the surrounding woods.
Word spread quickly. Pastor Bob Williamson said a member who lives close to the church site called and told him the church was "gone."
"What do you mean gone?" he asked. She told him it had taken a direct hit and "nothing was left except a pile of rubble and the slab of the fellowship hall."
At the site the next day, Williamson reflected on his first reaction to the destruction.
"I was just amazed to see the damage here, just obliterated, the church," Williamson said.
Some of the church members were weeping, he said, and wondering what to do.
"Well, we're going to do that last thing the Lord told us to do and that's to be the people of God," Williamson said he told them.
The pastor cancelled his plans to preach at a revival and determined that the church would meet at the site for worship May 1. Williamson has been the church's pastor for about six months. He and his wife Vicky retired from the International Mission Board after serving nearly 22 years in South Africa.
"I'm not leaving my church in this kind of struggle and going any place," Williamson said. "We're gonna make a statement and it's gonna be, 'We're not giving up, we're going on. We're gonna be the people of God. We're gonna worship You and we're gonna be faithful to do what You told us to do, and we're gonna be Mount Hebron East Baptist Church.' ... e recommit ourselves to the dream to be what God wants it to be. That's what we're gonna do."
First Baptist Church in Eclectic volunteered to bring 50 chairs to the site and a local funeral home loaned a tent, Williamson said.
"God is not surprised by this. You trust in the Lord and keep on doing the last thing the Lord told you to do unless He tells you to do something different.... God's faithful and we want to be faithful people," he said. "That's what we are committed to be."
Six people were confirmed dead in the area, the local sheriff's department reported; none were members of the church. One church member's home was heavily damaged, Williamson noted.
Jim Jackson, director of missions for Elmore Baptist Association, said it's miraculous that none of the association's other 42 churches were destroyed considering the intensity of the tornado and the widespread destruction. Some of the churches received minor damage.
While children played on the now clean slab of the fellowship hall at Mount Hebron East, stacks of hymnals, plastic flowers and a few other tangible items stood in contrast to the splintered wood planks, insulation, cabinet doors and roofing shingles still spread out behind the church.
Congregants and their families had been coming by all day. Some stayed to help clean up. They wandered around and made small piles of things considered usable. Some of the onlookers were members of their community who had family members with ties to the church or were just curious, Williamson said.
Dusty Duck, 27, was there most of the day helping. He and other men of the church righted most of the heavy headstones and salvaged tables and pieces of the pulpit.
"I'm just trying to lend a helping hand," said Duck, who has grown up in the church. His sister helped pull old hymnals out of the basement room under the church's wooden platform in anticipation of it giving way.
"My heart just dropped when I saw this," Duck said.
He lives in one of the nearby trailer parks that was not destroyed. The one that was destroyed was where four of the six who died in Elmore County lived, according to officials.
God is still in control, Duck said, and even with all that is going on, he has hope that the church will persevere.
"Hopefully the good Lord will let us rebuild and become stronger than this," Duck said. "It's not the building that makes the church, it's the people."
Joni B. Hannigan, managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness newspaper, 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."
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net
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