ELIZABETHTOWN, N.C. (ABP) — Eight days after a tornado demolished much of their campus, members of Elizabethtown Baptist Church in North Carolina were cleaning up and thanking God for the unity among churches and neighbors the tornado spawned.
Ironically, church volunteers had spent the day April 16 spring cleaning their buildings and grounds and had left the area just 90 minutes before the tornado — one of 25 that hit North Carolina that day, killing 24 people — struck their church. It caused extensive damage to two educational buildings and the sanctuary, destroyed a drive through portico and bell tower and did some damage to the activities center, which will be the site of future worship services for the near future.
After making emergency repairs until 1 a.m., church members gathered in the activities center on Sunday to worship in the midst of rubble and thanked God that no one was injured. And members of First Baptist Church — an African-American congregation — joined them in a surprise showing of unity and praise.
Chris Carroll, pastor at Elizabethtown just a year and a half, said the day after the storm was a “special, special time of worship” and said it was the first time the two churches had worshipped together.
That afternoon as many as 500 volunteers swarmed the church grounds and homes nearby to clean up storm damage. Carroll, just the church’s fourth pastor in 50 years, said by Monday they had removed 600 tons of debris.
Easter services a week later were “absolutely wonderful” said Carroll. An early morning service the church had started only recently, had its largest ever attendance at 125 and the regular service held in the activities center was packed with 450 worshippers, a number equal to the resident membership.
“This is a revival that could not have taken place except through a tornado,” Carroll said. “I firmly believe God has a great message for this church through that tornado. I’m slowly starting to get it piece by piece. I’m excited.”
Carroll said the tragedy is “tying the community together. These are good times here.”
Damage to the campus is covered by insurance and their agent is a member at Elizabethtown. Structural engineers said cracks in a sanctuary wall were caused by an object weighing approximately 1,000 pounds.
It caused an explosion of glass inward and destroyed a piano where a pianist had been practicing Easter music 10 minutes earlier. Although others had tried and failed to warn two practicing pianists of the approaching storm, they had suddenly decided they needed to leave the sanctuary and go home.
Their cars had been parked beneath the portico, which collapsed to the ground just moments after they drove away.
“Today is victory,” Carroll said during worship the next day. “We cannot be defeated by the destruction of buildings. This will not dampen our faith or make us lose sight of our mission.”
He said the tremendous outpouring of support from churches of other denominations and from individuals and organizations from towns 50 and 60 miles away has been a true sign of unity.
Carroll said his friend Cliff Freeman, pastor of First Baptist Church which came to worship with them the day after the storm, told Elizabethtown members that his congregation loves them and is “here for you.”
Freeman said his church could have sent a message and told them of their love, but “we came to show you our love.” After their own opening worship songs, the church spontaneously left their sanctuary and moved to join hands with Elizabethtown.
On Easter, 50 Elizabethtown members attended two different sunrise services, and several evening cantatas at neighboring churches to express their own appreciation for the love and unity they were shown in their time of need. The local Presbyterian church dedicated its cantata to Elizabethtown.
Norman Jameson is reporting and coordinating special projects for ABP on an interim basis. He is former editor of the North Carolina Biblical Recorder.