Tuscaloosa pastors ‘standing in the gap’
TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (BP)--Standing outside tornado-battered Alberta Baptist Church in Tuscaloosa, Larry Corder recaps that it was the church where he and his wife grew up in the 1960s.
He returned seven years ago as pastor, prayerful of revitalizing a church surrounded by poverty, crime and illegal drugs.
The devastation of a tornado now has upended the lives of Alberta Baptist Church's pastor and its members.
Corder and other Tuscaloosa church leaders gathered in Alberta's parking lot May 25 for a time of encouragement from Rick Lance, state missionary and executive director of the Alabama Baptist State Board of Missions, and Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Executive Committee.
"The definition of standing in the gap -- you're seeing the best of it here," Lance, an Alabama native and former Tuscaloosa pastor, said to the group amid the noise and dust of bulldozer operators clearing away remnants of tornado-obliterated houses on all sides of Alberta Baptist Church, just two miles from the University of Alabama. In one block adjacent to the church, five people were killed.
Corder and Donnie Payne were from congregations that, as Payne put it, "took a major hit" from Tuscaloosa's April 27 tornado. Payne is pastor of Forest Lake Baptist Church in the geographic center of the city.
Other pastors were from churches that rushed into action that evening -- Doug Reeves of East McFarland Baptist Church; Dale Glover of Cottondale Baptist Church; and Scott Reynolds of North River Church -- along with Tim Foster, chairman of Hopewell Baptist Church's deacons. Also on hand were Billy Gray, interim director of missions for the Tuscaloosa County Baptist Association, and Gary Bonner, the association's associate director of missions and pastor of Bethany Baptist Church.
Nearly every church, apart from structural damage, had families whose homes or rentals were demolished by the tornado.
"Wounded" was Lance's descriptor for "what has happened on April 27 and since April 27."
"We've been wounded as a state; I have felt wounded emotionally, personally, but not to any degree of … [others] in the directly impacted areas," Lance told Baptist Press. "I've traveled the state and been in most of the affected regions, which are many, and the evidences are the same: People have been traumatized … but we will recover and we will rebuild and we will renew as the time goes on."
In immediate recovery, for example, mobile chapels are being placed at various sites where churches need a meeting place during the rebuild phase that may entail two or more years, Lance said.
"Then the renewal part of it: … We hope that we can have a sense of renewal in Alabama -- in Alabama Baptist life and our state life -- because this is an opportunity in the midst of a crisis to be the people of God, people of faith, sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ," Lance said.
JOINING IN PRAYER
In a time of prayer for Tuscaloosa and other communities hit by this spring's tornado onslaught, Lance invited Page to intercede.
"Father, in Jesus' name, we come before You today and I left up these, my dear brothers and sisters," Page prayed. "Lord, they've been through a horrible, horrible valley. Father, this is the kind of time that we have to say we either believe in Romans 8:28 or we don't. And we do. We trust You and believe, Father, that You will bring good out of bad, that You'll bring life out of death, that you'll bring light out of darkness.
"I pray for Tuscaloosa and all of Alabama and other places, Lord, that have been affected," Page continued, "but we pray right now for these dear people. …. [We pray] for Brother Rick [Lance], Lord, and how much he loves this state, his home state. God, give him strength. These pastors, these laypeople -- God, I pray that You would encourage them today. Through the power of Your Holy Spirit, make Yourself famous in Tuscaloosa and Alabama. May people see there's a difference in how Christians are, how they treat each other, how they are selfless in their ministry and love. I pray, God, that these dear people would be strengthened and encouraged and that they would not be weary in well-doing."
REASON FOR LIVING
Payne, of Forest Lake Baptist Church, told Baptist Press, "We've been praying for God to give us a way to connect with the community … and share the Gospel and meet people's needs.
"We never dreamed that a tornado would give us that opportunity, but it has."
The message Payne hopes tornado survivors will hear from fellow survivors in Tuscaloosa's churches: "You're here for a reason and we want to help you find that reason."
Three of the church's senior citizens died of the overwhelming trauma stemming from the tornado, Payne said, while many members were miraculously spared as the tornado tore through their neighborhoods. The church facility sustained an estimated $2 million in structural damage, the pastor said.
At Alberta Baptist, the tornado buffeted the spiritual breakthroughs the church had been experiencing in recent years, Corder said.
The church had participated in Southern Baptists' pre-Easter "God's Plan for Sharing" evangelistic initiative in 2010 and seen results from its prayerwalking, door-to-door visits and its invitations to worship.
African Americans, high school and middle school students and older children have been baptized in the aging, predominantly white church -- including nine on one Sunday, "more than the previous two years combined," Corder said.
And the church had dedicated a $1.8 million renovation of its sanctuary and education space last October.
Despite the tornado, and a multiple myeloma cancer diagnosis of his wife Brenda, Corder said the church's spiritual growth seems to be accelerating.
"It seems like Satan always rears his head in the midst of all the good that's happening, so other than a few exceptions, we're seeing our church really pull together," the pastor said.
"I'm challenging our people from the Word of God every week, trying to encourage them and let them know this is not going to be a short-term recovery, it's going to be long-term," Corder said. "We're running the race. We've been given the baton. Our church has accomplished, with God's blessing, so much good over the years. Many people have gone out in the ministry from this church, including myself.
"I believe that our future is bright," he said, "that we're going to be stronger in the future."
Additional Tuscaloosa-area churches listed by The Alabama Baptist as damaged by the April 27 tornado are Fleetwood, New Eastern Hills, Pilgrim Rest, Rosedale and Temple Baptist.
Art Toalston is editor of Baptist Press. For information about donations to Alabama Baptists' disaster relief efforts, visit http://www.alsbom.org/feature3