Ala. churches forge bonds after deadly tornadoes

PLEASANT GROVE, Ala. (AP) — It’s difficult these days to discern what biblical image once decorated the blown-out stained glass windows at the First Assembly of God church. The building lies in crumpled heaps of bricks, twisted steel and wooden planks, obliterated by the tornadoes that roared across Alabama last week.

Directly across the street stands the damaged but still-intact First Baptist Church, where from the comfort of his office Thursday, senior pastor Daven Watkins offered help to his Assembly of God counterpart.

“If you all need a place to worship or if you want to join us for worship, by all means we can accommodate that,” Watkins said in a voicemail message left for Lamar Jacks, the senior pastor of Assembly of God.

If you need anything at all, Watkins added before hanging up, “Please, please call me.”

Churches commonly open their doors for donations and hot meals after natural disasters, and the relief effort in Alabama has been no different. Some churches in this deeply religious state have gone even further, offering up worship space for congregations that lost theirs in the storm, collecting food donations for churches in hard-hit areas to give to their communities and forging relationships that in some cases span denominations and styles of worship.

Church leaders say the disaster has a chance to bring closer congregations that generally had little connection.

“It just opens conversation, opportunities, communication that probably was not there before,” Watkins said.

Despite the offer from Watkins, Jacks moved his Assembly of God congregation of about 400 for a Thursday evening service to the non-denominational Peoples Church in nearby Hueytown, where he once served as worship leader and where the services are closer to his own Pentecostal denomination’s exuberant style of raised hands and singing and clapping.

Besides, the pastor, Buddy Poe, is an old friend who says God came to him and told him to open his door to Jacks and his congregation. Jacks says God delivered a similar message to him.

Though in a new building, the congregation maintained some comforting touches.

A portrait of a hooded Jesus that had been on display in the Pleasant Grove structure was placed at the foot of the altar. The frame had shattered and Jesus’s right eye was frayed, but 60 or so congregants applauded enthusiastically as the pastor, microphone in hand and voice booming, proudly pointed out how it had been salvaged.

“Can someone praise the Lord?” he called out. The applause grew louder.

Even if his congregants might feel more comfortable at the Peoples Church than in the Baptist church across the street, Jacks says he appreciated the offer, and both he and Watkins agree their differences are more peripheral than substantial.

“We have different worship styles, but you know something? It’s not about worship style. We all believe in Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior,” Jacks said.

The congregation worshipped last Sunday afternoon at the Garywood Assembly of God church in Hueytown. The pastor there, John Loper, said his offer applied to any congregation in need, regardless of denomination. He said it was part of a larger relief effort that included donations for Baptist congregations and others in the community with no affiliation to the church.

“We feel like this is what the Lord wanted us to do right now,” he said. “Where someone’s hurting, that’s where we want to be.”

Churches have played critical relief efforts so far.

A group from New Zion Baptist Church in Bessemer was helping fold donated clothes at the First Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove on Thursday. And the Bethel Baptist Church in Pleasant Grove has converted into a full-service relief center, providing meals to thousands of people daily and acting as a coordinating site for the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Pastor Rick Cato said he’s also busy attending to spiritual needs.

“We have a lot of people who were questioning, ‘Why did this happen? Why did this happen to me?’ Cato said. He tells them: “My best answer to them is that we have a broken world. We live in a lost, fallen, broken world.”

Watkins, the First Baptist pastor, said he has invited the entire Assembly of God congregation to his church — at least one family from across the street attended last Sunday — even though his building’s hardly in tip-top shape.

The steeple is gone, a blue tarp covers the roof, windows were blown out and the standing-room only service Sunday was held despite a lack of electricity. But he’s grateful that his building was spared, for whatever reason, and believes God left at least one of the churches intact so that ministry could still be done.

“I clearly don’t think that we did something right and they did something wrong, so that our building is standing and their building collapsed,” Watkins said.

It’s not clear when the Assembly of God or other churches will rebuild or how long they’ll have to rely on the generosity of neighboring congregations. Congregants like Jimmy Sims, a 70-year-old retired steelworker, say that despite the hospitality, it’s not quite the same to worship in another congregation’s place of worship.

After all, he says his grandchildren were dedicated to God at the Assembly of God church.

“It’s going to be different. It’s a lot of life there, you know?”

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