Pastor Robby Ferguson from Fuller Baptist Church in Ider drove over Lookout Mountain to deliver a message from the Old Testament (First Kings, 17: 8-16) to the members of Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church.
Rev. Dwayne Boudreaux did likewise an hour later to Ferguson’s congregation.
“I am nervous this morning. I pastor about 40 people. Ya’ll got more than that up top,” Ferguson, said pointing to the church balcony.
Music pastor Terry Chitwood and his family had their home on Eagle Landing Drive ripped apart on April 27 by a tornado. In less than a year, the home has been completely repaired.
Chitwood introduced Ferguson, furthering a Christian community collaboration born out of devastation.
He compared the biblical lesson of a widow who provided for Elijah with flour and olive oil after a three-year drought to his experience in the days following the tornadoes.
The day after the storm Ferguson felt compelled to help, relying on faith to provide the way during the chaos.
“ There were three rabbits and one package of chicken in my freezer,” Ferguson said. It was the first meal of many his flock would furnish.
It became one of numerous churches in Alabama and Georgia that was utilized to serve the greater communities during their darkest days.
Donations from near and far helped the tiny Ider church to produce 300 meals for eight days, delivering them to residents who no longer had homes.
Three days after the tornadoes a caravan of vehicles left the Flintstone church for Trenton, Ga., unknowingly to a gymnasium that had numerous volunteers and was filled with a wide expanse of supplies, similar to the one they had left.
A few calls were made, sending Boudreaux and volunteers to a church that was beginning relief efforts in a much more remote area.
As they arrived at Fuller Baptist Church, it became apparent that the exhausted church’s members had seen much more hardship in their community.
The two groups joined hands in a prayer circle, then proceeded to unload more than 100 bags and boxes of clothing and supplies.
The Flintstone church sent even more supplies to Ider in the following weeks, and the Ider congregation dispersed it to other even smaller areas that had no aid and were not visited by politicians or FEMA representatives, according to Ferguson.
The two pastors and others in the effort were profoundly inspired by the experience.
Church outreach efforts in Flintstone following the storm continued in a collaborative way, according to Boudreaux.
The traditional vocational Bible school was cancelled by the storms. “Backyard Bible Club” was held in its place at four local schools last summer, a shared effort among the three churches in Flintstone and Grace Community Church on Lookout Mountain, according to Durham.
A similar plan is being utilized for this summer.
Counting their blessings
Walker County sheriff’s deputy Lebron Durham began April 27 at Chattanooga Valley Elementary for fifth graders’ graduation from the CHAMPS program.
The student body instead was ushered into the hallway at 9 a.m. due to a weather alert. School officials monitored laptops for condition updates. Durham watched through a steel door with a small window.
“You could see the trees just bending,” Durham said. “They are swerving and you could see the tops lifting.” Durham witnessed a funnel cloud go over the school, one which didn’t touch the ground until it hit Fantasy Hills subdivision in Rossville.
Durham recalls one child softly playing the harmonica to calm other children crying in the school’s hallway, the first of many selfless acts to help a neighbor, if even in the smallest of ways.
In addition to serving the community in a law enforcement capacity, Durham is a youth minister at Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church.
Rev. Dwayne Boudreaux at the church took a group to Atlanta for a seminar later that morning.
“It was going to continue, wave after wave,” Boudreaux said, “Even in the morning you could tell the day was going to be something extraordinary.”
Schools in Walker County were released during a break in the weather as the evening forecasts became more foreboding.
Durham continued to patrol Flintstone, arriving at Ga. 193 and Battlefield Parkway at 5:30 p.m. ,where he saw the passing of a second tornado.
At approximately the same time, Jeremy Chitwood made a call to Rev. Boudreaux to notify his father, Terry, that a tornado had just hit their home. The group left the conference center and headed north.
Meanwhile in Alabama, Rev. Ferguson was outrunning several tornadoes, traveling to and from work in the morning and later trying to seek better shelter in the evening.
“It was just a gray wall that moved across and totally blocked out the mountain,” Durham said. He could see debris landing after the tornado impacted Flintstone.
“I felt pretty helpless there. I can only imagine what the people in Eagle Clift and Eagle Landing were feeling at the time,” Durham said.
Little did he know that the helplessness would begin to be replaced by the largest community service operation that the Walker County Sheriff’s Office has ever conducted.
A radio call from Lt. Steve Rogers Sr. sought a place large enough to hold the affected Flintstone residents. Durham had keys to the church and knew it was the closest place to the incident.
Nearly three hours after the church group had been notified of the Flintstone destruction, they arrived in Ringgold, according to Boudreaux. They took shelter one exit away from Alabama Highway and watched as the “wedge cloud” headed toward downtown Ringgold.
“By the time we got to the first (traffic) light in Fort Oglethorpe there were (numerous) emergency personnel heading to Ringgold,” Boudreaux s
The group from Chattanooga Valley Baptist Church would see even more as they returned to Flintstone.
Responding to need
“It was the first time we ever had dogs in the sanctuary,” Durham said, unable to remember how many people spent the first night.
The families stayed the night and returned home to survey the damage the following day.
Chattanooga Valley Presbyterian Church held the first community dinner in a darkened gym due to the area power outage.
Maj. Mike Freeman notified Durham to stay at the church, which became a volunteer check-in and a staging point for supplies that served Flintstone and Rossville. The massive outpouring of donations and volunteers allowed it to assist several rural communities in northeast Alabama where damage was worse and need was even greater.
Employees of Walker County Public Schools and members of Chattanooga Valley Church of the Nazarene relayed supplies, cut trees and helped in numerous other ways in the days that followed.
The church’s gymnasium was quickly filled with hundreds of cases of water, truckloads of clothing and a steady flow of chainsaw crews and volunteers that transported meals.
“This is what Christianity should really be about,” Boudreaux said.
One chainsaw crew from near Ider, Ala., arrived to help with recovery after several truckloads of supplies had been sent to their area.
“We might as well be here helping you, because there really isn’t anything to go back to,” Durham recalled one of the men saying upon their arrival to help in Walker County.
A church in Apison, Tenn., that had been overwhelmed with donations surprisingly donated tarps to the Flintstone relief center, according to Durham.
“They brought tons of tarps to us from a place that was absolutely devastated,” Durham said.
Several crews traveled up the mountain to the Hinkle community left isolated by thousands of trees that were knocked over by the tornado.
The staging area even served remote areas like Rainsville and Sand Mountain.
As a member of law enforcement “you tend to see people at their worst and so if your not careful you get kind of cynical,” Durham said.
He certainly didn’t expect anything near the community response that grew in the days that followed. Durham anticipated most people having to fend for themselves or rely on friends.
“I had a general impression that people didn’t really care much for each other,” Durham said, “I later told some people that God made me eat my words, but for the first time eating my words was a good thing.
“The division that tends to appear between churches and denomination disappeared,” Durham said.
That spiritual awakening brought about changes for both Durham and the Flintstone churches.
“In the Bible, Jesus prayed that his people would be unified,” Durham said. “But we haven’t been. The denominations weren’t united. It is almost as if we were in competition with each other.”
The magnitude of the storm’s aftermath made affiliations irrelevant as people showed up in droves to help all who were left needing help from their community.
“It has been a major change for me in the way I deal with people and see people,” Durham said. “I was forced to go back and look at my beliefs and what I teach.”
“Wouldn’t it be great if we could behave this way without it taking a natural and national disaster to bring us together,” Boudreaux said.
Rev. Ferguson echoed that philosophy as he closed his sermon on April 15, 2012.
He challenged church members to battle child hunger, which is an everyday struggle.
Rev. Boudreaux returned to his congregation, preaching about “Deliverance in Disaster,” while other church members shared their experiences from a year ago.