MAYFIELD, Ky. (AP) — After riding out the violent tornado that devastated their town in a tunnel under their church, Rev. Wes Fowler and his family emerged to devastation stretching for blocks: Crackling power lines, piles of rubble, and calls for help they couldn’t pinpoint in the darkness.
Later, safe back at home, his daughter had a question that left him stumped: “My little girl asked me, ‘Why would God let this happen?’” said Fowler, senior pastor at First Baptist Church in Mayfield.
While he believes God did allow the tornado to happen, he had no answer as to why the western Kentucky community where he was baptized, grew up, and chose to raise his family wasn’t spared from the Friday night storms that left dozens dead and communities reeling across at least five states. But he felt he knew what to do next: glorify God amid the suffering, and serve those in need.
“It’s easy to serve the Lord when things are good,” Fowler said. “It’s more challenging to serve him when times are bad, and I think that’s really when people are looking to see if our faith is genuine, if our faith is true.”
Despite suffering damage to their own church buildings, First Baptist staff and volunteers mobilized to provide whatever they can to help survivors cope with the disaster’s aftermath and stay afloat — gift cards, food, generators, water, a listening ear, and more.
Blake Schuecraft, associate pastor, said church leadership formed three teams in the wake of the storm: One to help affected members of the congregation, which numbers around 350 on Sundays; a second to focus on patching up and cleaning the First Baptist campus; and a third to serve the broader community of about 10,000 people and coordinate offers of aid.
A Georgia ministry showed up with generators ready to serve coffee to the community, and first Baptist invited them to use their space, Schuecraft said. He has fielded offers of help from churches as far away as New York as well as individuals in Florida and Illinois: “Some people are just loading up what they have and bringing it here.”
The congregation, whose founding dates to before the Civil War, was about two months from moving into its newly remodeled, nearly century-old sanctuary when the tornado hit. Some of its stained-glass windows blew out and a wall was cracked, delaying its reopening. But it faired the best of the First Baptist structures.
Across the street in the church’s children’s building, the decorated Christmas tree in the foyer was miraculously untouched, but glass shards, soggy ceiling tiles and other debris were strewn across the floor as workers scrambled to cover holes in the roof of the congregation’s temporary worship space. Outside and in front of one of the dust-covered entrances, coffee dispensers, creamers and sweeteners lined folding tables beneath a towering cross in a shattered second-story window.
Debbie Samples, a member of First Baptist for about 20 years, spent hours Monday brewing pot after pot of coffee that was handed out in Styrofoam cups to community cleanup crews and to neighbors through the rolled-down windows of cars creeping through the devastated downtown. That small offering of comfort was a familiar act of service for Samples, who often provides meals to the bereaved and those in need through one of the church’s ministries. Heartbroken by the destruction, Samples wanted to help any way she could.
“This church has been a vital part of our lives, but it’s not just the building — it’s our church family,” Samples said. “It’s who calls on us or who we call on when things are down … it’s Christ, and we hope that we can shine for him through this.”
Samples said she hunkered down with more than a dozen family members and neighbors in her basement late Friday as the tornado roared through like a freight train. They have a standing invitation to take cover there, the only home with a basement in her neighborhood. Located a couple of miles outside Mayfield, the area was not hit by the twister — so she gasped when she saw the scope of the destruction in town.
“Pictures do not do justice to what we see,” Samples said. “It’s worse than we could ever imagine.”
Fowler, too, recalled the terror of that night, when he and his wife used their bodies to cover their three children in the tunnel as the ceiling shook violently, enveloping them in a cloud of dust.
“It probably lasted … 30 seconds or more. It felt like it lasted five minutes,” Fowler said. “The kids were crying, and I was telling them verbally, ‘We’re going to be OK. We’re going to be OK.’ … But in my mind I was thinking we might not be OK.”
In the moment, they focused on staying alive. Once safe, their conversation turned to God.
Days later, as the afternoon sun shone through damaged stained glass in the empty sanctuary, Fowler still had no answer to his daughter’s question. He believes in a sovereign God but could come up with no theological reasoning for why the tornado delivered such a deadly blow to Mayfield and not some other town.
“I had to look at my little 8-year-old girl, who looks to me for answers,” he said, “and I had to say … ‘I don’t know. I don’t know.’”