Twister rips Pensacola church

by Joni B. Hannigan, posted Friday, October 19, 2007 (10 years ago)

PENSACOLA, Fla. (BP)--Pastors in the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association paused Thursday night to pray for Greater Little Rock Baptist Church, which was heavily damaged by an F1 tornado earlier in the day, while its daycare center was ripped apart.

The 150-yard-wide tornado with winds estimated up to 100 mph slammed into the church's daycare first, then moved up about a block to where the church stands, churning up the worship center's massive metal roof and spitting out the contents like graffiti throughout the neighborhood.

Bright yellow tufts of insulation stuck in the chain link fences lining the church property as huge pieces of green twisted rooftop were slowly being hauled in from blocks away and lined up in the parking lot. Throughout the afternoon and into the evening as heavy rains continued to pelt the area, water poured into the unstable opening in the church's roof.

No one was hurt at the church or in the daycare center.

"The Lord has promised and He has proved Himself to be faithful," Greater Little Rock pastor Lonnie D. Wesley III told the Florida Baptist Witness. "He is who He said He is."

Greater Little Rock Baptist Church is one of the largest African American Southern Baptist churches in the area, with about 650 members.

Wesley said he has heard from Florida Baptist pastors and Florida Baptist Convention personnel and is encouraged by their prayers and support.

"I am thankful to God for the outpouring of support the body of the church is showing to us at this time," Wesley said. "It is evident that someone is praying for us. There is a lot to do."

The 13,000-square-foot building sits on the historic site of the Booker T. Washington High School, Pensacola's first African American high school, which burned down. Construction was completed on the church’s current building in 1998 and, according to an architectural magazine, its design is inspired by Noah's ark with its keel turned towards the heavens.

The church also has ties to retired Dallas Cowboys' running back Emmitt Smith, who grew up attending the church and whose mother, Mary Smith, is a member of the congregation and was assisting with clean-up at the church site early Friday morning.

Bob Greene, director of missions for the Pensacola Bay Baptist Association, which was holding its annual session Oct. 18, told messengers he briefly toured the church site Thursday afternoon and met with Wesley.

Sarah Lane, a member of Greater Little Rock for 27 years, spent Thursday afternoon at an annex of the church about a half mile from the church's main site, fielding phone calls on the pastor's cell phone while he met with her husband, who leads the church's trustees and deacon board, other leaders and his staff to strategize about the days ahead.

"If you love the church, you know you love the Lord," Lane told the Witness.

Although one of Lane's jobs was to keep reporters out, she wasn't unwilling to talk, on the record, about God's part in how the day's events unfolded.

In the annex preparing food for the children at the daycare, Lane said she became concerned when the weather turned ugly. "It just started lightning real bad and the rain just came down like sheets," she said. Someone called and told her husband a tornado had hit the church, and then finally someone called on their cell phone and told her that the daycare had been hit, Lane said, describing the rooms full of broken glass and window blinds.

Lane said the children had been sitting on the floor with the teacher and the "windows started shaking and the glass started blowing and they just herded the kids up in the hallway and to the bathroom."

No one was hurt, although there was no warning, Lane said. Just intuition. Just concern. The worst, she said in hushed tones, was that someone put the report out that "some of the kids had passed."

"Parents were coming in there, they were flying in there picking up their kids. Some were crying," Lane teared up. "But no one was hurt."

Speaking proudly of her pastor, a young man meeting with mostly his elders, Lane laughed, "Yes, we have a young pastor.

"He's great, he's good, the Lord sent him to us here," Lane said. "Good staff. We like the church and we like working for the church."

Lane said she believes God sent the tornado in order to show His handiwork. Not for any particular reason, not even to get people's attention because they were doing something wrong, but in order, perhaps, so that He might bless believers with what will happen next.

"Lord, no one else could do this but You," Lane said. "You don't question it. Why us? You don't, because could nobody else do it, but the Lord. You look around, you know it's Him. He give it to us and He can take it away."

And why God would do such a thing? Lane said, again, it's simply part of His plan to help believers see how to give and share.

"Well, to let us know what a wonderful God He is on giving; for us to do the same thing, and He wants us to do the same thing."

Fritz Wilson, who heads Florida Baptist Convention disaster relief and recovery, told the Witness the convention will support them through the process of getting back on their feet.

"We will be there to help them through the long part of the rebuilding and recovery process," Wilson said. "In the next several weeks we will begin to see how we can help them through the long term."

Ron Lentine, pastor of nearby Myrtle Grove Baptist Church, responded to the crisis immediately after the tornado and was one of the first pastors on site to offer help to Wesley. Lentine offered the use of his church’s multi-purpose building and gymnasium to Greater Little Rock.

"Our hearts go out to this fellow pastor," Lentine said. "We want to do all we can to help and support him in his time of need. We care about this congregation and the people involved."

Lentine heads a faith-based organization in the area formed after the recent hurricane seasons. They stress preparedness and strategic planning for what to do in the aftermath of a hurricane.

"Frankly, people are still thinking about hurricanes and this tornado just sort of took us by surprise," Lentine said.

Wesley told the Witness his congregation will meet at their church annex Sunday at the old Landmark church at 1171 N. "F" St. in Pensacola. They'll try to meet in two services, but if that doesn't work the first week, they'll expand to three morning worship services.

"'Home first,' was the sentiment the leaders expressed," Wesley said. "We just wanted to keep it close to home."

Local Florida Baptist disaster relief units operated out of Pensacola's Hillcrest Baptist and Olive Baptist churches will be doing clean-up operations at several locations throughout the Pensacola area in residential and business areas on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 19-20.


Joni B. Hannigan is managing editor of the Florida Baptist Witness, on the Web at www.floridabaptistwitness.com.

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