"Our purpose in gathering tonight is not to be nostalgic," Union President David S. Dockery said. "What we're doing tonight is something very biblical, which is to remember."
The service featured testimonies from students, a devotional from Dockery and singing and prayer in Union's G.M. Savage Memorial Chapel in Jackson, Tenn.
The EF-4 tornado that hammered Union on Feb. 5, 2008, caused about $40 million in damage, leveling 17 buildings and trapping dozens of students in collapsed apartments. Fifty-one students went to the hospital for treatment, nine of them with serious injuries. But despite the damage, no lives were lost.
"We prayed diligently and desperately beginning that night for God to bring renewal out of rubble, to bring restoration out of ruin, and He has answered our prayers," Dockery said.
Kevin Furniss, one of the students trapped in the Watters Commons building that night, recounted his rescue. Furniss and several friends were buried under nearly 25 feet of rubble for several hours before rescue workers were able to free them.
"We began to pray," Furniss recounted. "We began to sing hymns and give thanks to God for protecting us to that point.... We didn't really feel like we had much hope, to be honest."
Furniss remembers hearing the chainsaws cutting through the debris and smelling the gasoline, until he was finally able to stick his hand into the cold night air and feel a rescue worker grab it.
"It felt like the first time that I received Christ and salvation -- the feeling of knowing that I no longer was a part of my sin and my filth, and God has rescued me from that," Furniss said.
Danny Song was another former Union student who was trapped in a different part of the same building as Furniss. As the tornado ripped through and crushed the structure, Song was thrown to the ground and a couch was blown and wedged next to him -- propping up a concrete wall that otherwise would have crushed him.
"I have heard, and I've been tempted to feel that, man, I must be pretty great for God to have spared me," Song said. "I must have either done something great or am about to do something great, because God spared me.
"It's just a recent realization that it wasn't about me at all," Song continued. "It wasn't about us. It's just because God's good. God's not good because He saved me. God saved me because He's good. It's just that the works of God might be displayed in us."
Dockery, in his devotional, referenced King Hezekiah, of whom the Bible says that God heard his prayers and saw his tears.
"Somehow God uses tears," Dockery said. "It's not that our tears get His attention, but He responds with a kind, benevolent, compassionate heart to our tears that cry out for Him. And we cried out to God during those times."
Basing his comments on 2 Chronicles 29's account of Hezekiah's call for a renewal among the people of Jerusalem, Dockery said the tornado changed the way of life on the Union campus.
"Tonight I invite us to recommit ourselves once again to a Godward kind of consecration, to a Christ-centeredness that comes out of God doing something deep in our lives," Dockery said.
Dockery said that the original hopes in the days after the tornado were that the campus could be rebuilt within five years. Two years later, in February 2010, Union celebrated the completion of the Bowld Student Commons -- the last facility that was destroyed by the tornado to be rebuilt.
"That's the ultimate story tonight -- that God is good, and God did something here in our midst that only God can do," Dockery said. "He did something for us that we could not do for ourselves. Just as He saved us in Christ, so He brought renewal to this campus."
Tim Ellsworth is director of news and media relations for Union University and author of "God in the Whirlwind: Stories of Grace from the Tornado at Union University" available at online outlets such as LifeWay Christian Stores (www.lifewaystores.com) and Amazon.
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