Alabama Community Sees ‘Glimmers of Light’ After Deadly Tornados

Pastor Rusty Sowell reflects on the crosses still remaining on the lawn of Providence Baptist Church in Beauregard, Ala., in memory of the 23 people killed by tornados that hit the rural community March 3. Since the storms hit, Providence Baptist has been involved in 24/7 ministry to the “walking wounded” in the area, Sowell said. Photo by Grace Thornton/Alabama Baptist/BP

So much more — that’s what the March 3 tornados were to Rusty Sowell. So much more than he ever could’ve fathomed.

He’d heard that tornado’s sound like a freight train, but as he and his wife laid on the floor and an F-4 storm crossed over their house, he said it was so much louder than a freight train could ever be.

And it was more deadly than Sowell ever could’ve imagined as he wrapped up church services at Providence Baptist Church that morning, the rural congregation he’s served as pastor for the past 35 years.

“Our fire chief alerted me that there were some serious weather alerts, so we opened up the basement of the church as a shelter for anyone who wanted to come,” Sowell recounted.

People lined up. A Providence Baptist team trained in disaster response began registering people as they entered, including one church member who had gone home from church with her grandchildren, then thought better of it and drove back to the church basement.

In the end, there wasn’t time to register everybody — church members had to just throw open the doors and get everyone inside. One tornado dropped, then another as more than 80 people huddled there and the Sowells laid on the floor of their home.

“I had no idea at that point that so many people were gathered at the church,” he said.

But minutes later as the air cleared and the phone calls came, he found that out — and a lot of other information. People had died, and first responders — including Sowell’s son — were searching for the missing.

The church member who had turned around and gone back to the church — her house was totally gone.

“We know of several like that who went home after the storm and their properties were totally destroyed, so we feel like lives were saved that day,” the pastor said.

Sowell was one of them — homes all around his were destroyed too. He sees every day since March 3 as a “bonus day,” one he might never have had if things had been slightly different.

He’s reminded of that each day as he drives by the 23 white wooden crosses on the lawn of Providence Baptist, with notes written on them to memorialize loved ones lost in the community.

“We realize our humanity and that life can change on a dime. It has,” Sowell said. “I’ve seen grown men cry — me included.”

A couple of weeks ago, as more thunderclouds rolled in and rain splashed the 23 wooden crosses on the lawn, people came flooding to the church’s basement again, begging to get in.

The trauma is “still so fresh,” Sowell said. “Time is a great healer but it doesn’t come fast enough.”

But where time has been slow, he said God has been right on time — to the point that church members are still shaking their head in disbelief.

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SOURCE: Baptist Press