Tornado shakes foundation of congregation's faith

April 03, 1994|By Rick Bragg | Rick Bragg,New York Times News Service

PIEDMONT, Ala. -- This is a place where grandmothers hold babies on their laps under the stars and whisper in their ears that the lights in the sky are holes in the floor of heaven. This is a place where the song "Jesus Loves Me" has rocked generations to sleep, and heaven is not a concept, but a destination.

Yet in this place where many things, even storms, are viewed as God's will, people strong in their faith and their children have died in, of all places, a church.

"We are trained from birth not to question God," said 23-year-old Robyn Tucker King of Piedmont, where 20 people, including six children, were killed when a tornado tore through the Goshen United Methodist Church on Palm Sunday.

"But why?" she said. "Why a church? Why those little children? Why? Why? Why?"

The destruction of this little country church and the deaths, including that of the pastor's vivacious 4-year-old daughter, have shaken the faith of many people who live in this deeply religious corner of rural northeastern Alabama, about 80 miles northeast of Birmingham.

It is not that it has turned them against God. But it has hurt them in a place usually safe from hurt, like a bruise on the soul.

They saw friends and family crushed in what they believed to be the safest place on earth, then carried away on makeshift stretchers of splintered church pews.

They saw two other nearby churches destroyed, those congregations somehow spared while funerals for Goshen went on all week and the obituaries filled an entire page.

But more troubling than anything, said the people who lost friends and family in the Goshen church, were the tiny patent-leather children's shoes scattered in the ruin. They were new Easter shoes, bought especially for church.

"If that don't shake your faith," said Michael Spears, who works at Lively's Food Market in downtown Piedmont, "nothing will."

The minister of the Goshen church, the Rev. Kelly Clem, her face covered with bruises from the fallen roof, buried her daughter Hannah on Wednesday. Of all people, she understands how hurtful it is to have the walls of the church broken down.

"This might shake people's faith for a long time," said Mrs. Clem, who led a congregation of 140 on the day of the storm. "I think that is normal. But having your faith shaken is not the same as losing it."

Ministers here believe that the churches will be more crowded than usual on Easter Sunday. Some will come for blessings but others expect an answer.

Mrs. Clem and her husband, Dale, who is also a minister, do not believe God sent the storm that killed their daughter and 40 others across the Southeast in a few short hours.

The Clems make a distinction between God's laws and the laws of nature, something theologians have debated for years: What does God control and not control?

The people here know only that they have always trusted in the kindness and mercy of God and that their neighbors died in his house while praising his name. It only strengthens the faith in bTC some people, who believe that those who die inside any church will find the gates of heaven open wide.

Others are confused. Beyond the sadness and pain is a feeling of something lost, maybe forever.

"It was church," said Jerri Kernes, delivering flowers to a funeral home where the dead and their families filled every room. "It isn't supposed to happen in church."

People here are accustomed to storms and the damage that the winds do, but what happened last Sunday was off the scale of their experience. Rescue workers found neighbors limp and broken on the ground, and strong men sobbed like babies in the arms of other men when the last of the living and dead had been dug from the rubble.

In a makeshift morgue in the National Guard Armory, one volunteer wiped the faces of the dead children before zipping up the body bags. The bags were too long and had to be rolled up from the bottom.

But in the days after, the shock started to wear off, and the pride took hold again. So, when the truckloads of donated food and clothes arrived, some of the needy refused aid because they did not earn it with their own sweat.

Sam Goss runs a filling station and believes in heaven the same way he believes that walking in the Coosa River will get him wet.

Mr. Goss, 49, stood in a line 50 yards long to pay respects to the dead at the town's largest funeral home. He smoked a cigarette, cried and talked of going to Glory.

He was a friend to Derek Watson, who died with his wife, Glenda Kay, and 18-year-old daughter, Jessica. Mr. Goss said Mr. Watson, who worked at the Super Valu, had not planned to go to church that day but changed his mind.

"Maybe that's what people mean when they say God works in mysterious ways," Mr. Goss said. "I know the boy. He could not have lived if his wife and child were gone."

It is the same reason, he said, that God took both Ruth Peek, 64, and Cicero Peek, 72.

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