By Kim Plummer Krull
Four days after the deadly tornado devastated Cullman, Ala., congregation leaders thought maybe 35 people would take time away from sifting through debris and struggling to clean up damaged homes and neighborhoods to take part in worship at St. Paul’s Lutheran Church.
Instead, nearly 170 people packed the fellowship hall on Sunday, May 1, including Kenneth Neal, who asked to share “a simple story” about guardian angels.
Neal told how he fled to his basement on April 27 and crouched under a stairwell as he felt a killer tornado shift his house and collapse the upstairs floor. When he managed to crawl out of a three-foot hole in the rubble, the 77-year old farmer and St. Paul’s member said he saw devastation everywhere, but he escaped without a scratch or a cut.
“I had a guardian angel directly over me,” Neal told LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s (WR-HC) Rev. Glenn F. Merritt after worship, explaining that he felt “the necessity” to go to church and share how “there is a God and there are guardian angels.”
Neal’s story is just one of many tornado survivors are sharing with WR-HC staff since the mercy ministry arrived Saturday, April 30, in Alabama to assess damages and assist LCMS congregations in hard-hit communities. (To see photos and video interviews from the trip, go to the WR-HC Facebook page or visit www.lcms.org/disaster/tornado.)
“The devastation is so widespread in Alabama, it’s impossible to take it all in,” said Merritt, director of Disaster Response with WR-HC. “Over four days, we’re not able to go to every community that has been hit hard, but we’re doing the best we can to touch base with as many congregations that we can, check with their members who have damage and go into the communities to see what their needs are.”
“The needs are so urgent, you can’t help but think of what we saw after Hurricane Katrina,” said Merritt, who is traveling with fellow WR-HC Disaster Response team members Rev. Carlos Hernandez and Rev. Darrell Howanitz and WR-HC Communications Director Al Dowbnia.
The team arrived Saturday in Tuscaloosa, where the killer storms damaged Holy Cross Lutheran Church “but not as badly as compared to the rest of the neighborhood,” Merritt said.
As one of the neighborhood’s few buildings with running water and functioning restrooms, Holy Cross opened its doors to the community and distributed grilled hot dogs. That’s where Merritt and the WR-HC team met four young women on a break from the sad task of searching through debris where a twister killed their 21-year-old friend and their friend’s two roommates about a block from the church.
“We spent time praying with the girls, listening to them and helping them sort through the rubble for mementoes of their friend,” Merritt said.
On Monday, May 2, the WR-HC team met with members of Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Gardendale, where two member families sustained major property damage. The team also planned to check on LCMS congregations in Birmingham and Huntsville on assessment visits that will continue through Tuesday, May 3.
At each stop, the team provided information about how congregations can apply for WR-HC grants to help member families and also reach out into their communities. “Most churches don’t have any reserve funds to help their own families or their communities, so they need to know they can come to us,” Merritt said.
WR-HC has made available an initial $50,000 to assist with tornado relief needs, including an initial $10,000 grant to the LCMS Southern District to assist congregations with emergency needs, Merritt said. WR-HC staff also distributed tarps, flashlights and storage containers in communities as they made stops.
A high point in this poignant trip came when WR-HC staff joined Sunday worship at St. Paul’s in Cullman, where the tornado damaged both the church and school and the homes of at least three St. Paul’s members. “But despite the devastation, the people were singing hymns with joy,” Dowbnia said. “Their faith, their foundation, was not shaken.”
Because LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s tornado relief fund was depleted by last year’s tornado relief efforts, gifts are urgently needed to respond to this spring’s historic onslaught of twisters and storms in the Midwest and the South.
To contribute to the Synod’s tornado disaster response:
- Mail checks (noting “Tornado Disaster Relief” in the memo line) to LCMS World Relief and Human Care, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
- Call toll-free 888-930-4438.
- Give online for LCMS “Tornado Disaster Relief” efforts (click here).
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
This story was produced by LCMS World Relief and Human Care.
Posted May 3, 2011