JACKSONVILLE, AL (WBRC) - It’s a wedding anniversary Ronny Moore will never forget.
Instead of celebrating with his wife, Sebrenia, the couple hunkered down in a hallway with Moore’s 83-year-old mother as violent storms tore across Calhoun County. Moore’s son called his father from the nearby community of Saks with terrible news.
“He said, ‘Daddy, I heard there’s been some damage at the church,’” Moore recently recalled, and then paused for ten seconds to gather himself. It still hurts to talk about that awful Monday night last year, when an EF-3 tornado ripped through Jacksonville, and straight down the middle of the sanctuary of West Point Baptist Church, where Moore is Senior Pastor.
“It wasn’t easy,” said Moore, who drove to the church that night and walked WBRC through the destruction on live television.
The twister reduced the traditional red brick church to piles of debris. Furniture was in splinters. The church’s sound system was destroyed. Bibles and choir books were soaked with rain. Amazingly, the twister did not touch the cemetery adjacent to the church.
“Not one flower was blown off those headstones,” Moore said.
When the tornado hit, West Point Baptist Church was preparing to celebrate its 100th birthday two months later. The oldest part of the building that was destroyed was 50 years old. Many church members had been married there, children were baptized and raised in the church. Even the newest parts of the facility built in 2003- a fellowship hall, educational wing and offices, were a total loss.
“As devastating as the tornado was, there’s an upside to it,” said Moore. No one was killed in the storm. Some church members had homes that were damaged, but everyone was OK. Despite the trauma of losing the beloved building, Moore said West Point’s congregation has continued to grow, gaining new members from surrounding communities since the storm.
“Our church has held together well and they have shown their faithfulness to God,” Moore said. “The people of this church are dedicated to the Lord and willing to do whatever needs to be done so that we not only survive, we thrive through all this.”
A TEMPORARY HOME
They needed a space that could accommodate the 150-200 people who attended worship services and beginning on the Sunday after the storm, Pleasant Valley Elementary School became the temporary home for the West Point Baptist congregation.
The space doesn’t have all the bells and whistles of a church, but Moore has made it work. The alter is a small podium that stays at the school. A company in Anniston donated a PA system that remains in the school storage room during the week.
Every Sunday inside the school lunch room, they hold Sunday school groups at 10 a.m. and two worship services, a morning service at 11 a.m. and evening service at 5 p.m.
Moore has leaned on church members to help with the choreography required to pull this off. On Friday nights, a crew of men and women from the church move out all the tables in the library and set up 200 padded folding chairs the church purchased after the tornado. Before anyone goes home after Sunday evening service, they take everything down and pack it up so the school will be ready for students on Monday morning.
Moore appreciates the school working with the church, but knows many members are anxious to get into a permanent space. Some church members have declined to attend the services in the school, telling Moore that it doesn’t feel like church. Moore tells them they’re doing the best they can.
“No hard feelings toward them, but I can’t fix that,” Moore said. “There is a thing called Faith, but there’s also a reality and we have to balance it. I think we’ve done a good job in our planning and preparation.”
A lot can happen in one year and a lot can also not happen.
The demolition and clearing of the church took longer than Moore expected. At first, they thought some of the building could be saved, but after testing the structure, engineers from Birmingham recommended against it. Then they discovered asbestos, and the abatement procedure was lengthy.
“It was exciting for us to finally see it torn down because for months, we had to sit and look at what was left,” Moore said.
With the lot cleared and services squared away in their temporary space at the school, Moore and other church leaders began focusing on rebuilding. Before the tornado, they were starting to outgrow the building. They’ve tried to keep this in mind and plan for future growth, so the next building to house West Point Baptist will be a church home for generations to come.
Still, the planning process has been stressful, with many unknowns along the way. Moore keeps the three renderings of the new church mounted on easels during Sunday services to remind his congregation of what’s to come. It is time consuming to start from scratch and he’s tried to keep morale up among his flock.
“This year has been long in the sense of anticipation, kind of like a kid waiting for Christmas and it seems like we’ll never get there,” said Moore.
Last September, the church voted on a plan and they’ve selected contractors to give opening bids on construction. Moore is hoping to hire a firm by the end of the month and possibly break ground sometime in April.
“I don’t have all the answers,” Moore said. “We’ve prayed, we’ve planned, we’ve submitted everything we can, but this is His church. It’s not up to me.”
In 1990, Leatherwood Baptist Church in Anniston was destroyed by a fire when Moore was pastor. He led rebuilding efforts back then, so he knows what is possible when a congregation pulls together. He also understands the pain experienced by the West Point family when their church was ripped apart.
“I didn’t try to play that down or deny it,” Moore said. “Although we may not like it, He’s in control. He was sovereign when this thing hit on March 19. We may not fully understand the reason, but now I think we’re starting to see it.”
Moore works out of a two room trailer adjacent to the vacant lot where the church once stood. Volunteers produce the church bulletins in the trailer, and Moore holds a men’s group inside it on Monday nights.
Also in the trailer are the few things salvaged after the storm. Three bookcases that were not damaged from the choir room. Several small pieces of office furniture. A painting a church member gave to Moore depicting two people in a boat, inside the eye of the Lord. Somehow, these few items survived the vicious winds and pounding rain from that night. Surrounding churches opened their arms and wallets, donating toward West Point’s recovery and inviting West Point’s children to their Easter egg hunt and Vacation Bible School.
Still, the past year has tested his patience and resolve and the congregation’s commitment to each other, challenged by factors beyond anyone’s control. Moore hopes the community will continue to support his church as it heals.
“Pray for us. It’s easy to do that in the middle of something, but afterwards, people forget,” Moore said. “I believe in the power of prayer and I guess that’s what we need more than anything else.”