By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press
SELMA, Ala. (AP) – Rev. David Nichols led Sunday services on the lawn in front of his tornado-damaged Crosspoint Christian Church and told his congregation that despite the destruction around them, there is much to be grateful for.
The tornado that devastated Selma hit the church daycare. It destroyed much of the building, collapsing walls and leaving piles of rubble in some classrooms, but the 70 children and teachers crowded in the bathrooms were unharmed.
“Nothing but by the grace of God that they got out of there,” Nichols said as he surveyed the building.
On Sunday, after a tornado devastated much of the historic town of Selma, congregations offered prayers of gratitude for lives spared and prayers of consolation for lives lost elsewhere to the storm.
Churches are anchors of fellowship for many in this historic city. Black communities also played an integral role in the civil rights movement. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday will be celebrated Monday, led the 1965 Brown Chapel AME Church suffrage march.
The storm system has been accused of killing nine people — two in Georgia and seven in rural Autauga County, Alabama, where an estimated EF3 tornado, which is just two steps short of the strongest category of tornadoes, blew up RVs and ripped off roofs . The Selma twister, an estimated high-end EF2 with winds reaching 130 mph, cut a wide swath through the city, collapsing buildings and snapping trees in half. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Sunday that President Joe Biden had approved a major disaster declaration for the two hard-hit Alabama counties.
The hymn “Amazing Grace” floated across the lawn of Selma’s Crosspoint Church, where services were being held outside due to damage to the main sanctuary. The service also honored the quick-thinking teachers, who took the children, ranging in age from infants to 5-year-olds, into the building’s inner bathrooms and shielded them with their own bodies as the Twister roared overhead.
Sheila Stockman, a teacher at Crosspoint Christian Day Care, said they made the decision to take the children to the bathroom when they saw the storm approaching.
“The walls started shaking and I said to my class, ‘Lie down and close your eyes’…. and I lay on top of her until it was over,” Stockman said.
Stockman said teachers tried to calm the children as the tornado raged overhead.
“I prayed and kept telling them, ‘It’s okay. I have you. You are OK. Love you all,'” Shana Lathan told her class as they huddled together in the bathroom.
When it was over, Stockman said they opened the bathroom door to see the sky above and parts of the building were gone. A room where the preschoolers were housed moments earlier was filled with debris.
At the historic Brown Chapel AME on Sunday afternoon, parishioners distributed plates of food, baby food, diapers, water and other supplies.
“So many people are hurting here right now that there is a kind of mutual misery that requires a shared hope and a shared vision to help us help one another through this,” Rev. Leodis Strong said.
His sermon for the day was titled “A Storm Tested Faith.” Strong said the faith of the church is being tested because “this is an environment where we have to rely on that relationship with God and put into practice the faith that we’ve developed.”
A bust of Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. stands outside the church. As the nation marks King’s birthday, Strong said King’s message resonates through disaster recovery.
“If anything, that should inspire and motivate us to share our belief and understanding of Dr. To practice King’s commitment. So we’ll get through this. We’re going to make it,” Strong said.
There was a similar message at the Blue Jean Selma Church, a racially mixed church with a name that suggests everyone is welcome in whatever attire they choose. “Even in the midst of it, we have hope,” said church pastor Bob Armstrong.
Church members shared stories of close encounters—one man emerged unharmed from a destroyed building and another exited a building just before the ceiling collapsed.
A similar feeling of gratitude was felt by Parishioner Lynn Reeves, who swayed under the church’s stained glass windows to modern gospel music. With the destruction wrought by the city, it’s amazing no one was killed, she said.
During the storm, Reeves took shelter in the bathroom of the auto parts store where she works. She said her colleague was in the store’s van when the twister dropped part of a roof on him, but he was not seriously injured.
“It’s a blessing. By the grace of God, it’s a blessing… because it could have been worse,” Reeves said.
By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press