TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – “It’s not turning – it’s coming straight at us!” Donna Deal’s husband shouted from the window. With seconds to spare, Deal, her husband, her parents and her daughter ran to the nearest closet, joining their two grandchildren, as the April 27 tornado that obliterated much of Tuscaloosa blazed over them.
“We didn’t get the door shut,” Deal recalled. “It was right on us.”
A deafening rush like a freight train consumed the moment as Deal heard winds rip out the backyard walkway, the carport, the walls – and then the roof above their heads.
But God’s hand was there too, Deal said. A four-foot-wide, 51-year-old oak tree uprooted and collapsed, collecting tin from the roof and mixed debris as it caved in directly over them.
“It was as if the hand of God laid that tree and that debris on top,” she noted. “He put it over the top of the closet.”
Remains of the home were crushed or torn away, but God’s protecting arms – through the limbs of a tree – saved four generations that day, Deal said, calling it “definitely a miracle.”
Her testimony of miraculous protection added to a long list of personal accounts shared with Texas Baptist volunteers during a weeklong mission trip to the tornado-ravaged city.
“We came down thinking we were going to be a blessing to the people of Alabama, but the people of Alabama have been a blessing to us,” said Keith Mitchell from Bethlehem Baptist Church in Mansfield.
The trip, headed up by Texas Baptists’ Disaster Response, gave participants an up-close, hands-on experience with Hope 1:8, a Texas Baptists initiative to fulfill the Acts 1:8 imperative by reaching out and sharing Christ’s love through missions.
More than 117 volunteers from 28 Texas Baptist churches served daily in various relief efforts throughout the city. Mitchell worked alongside other volunteers at Forest Lake Baptist Church Disaster Relief Center, which launched from the church’s basement a day after the tornado struck. Volunteers helped organize shoes, clothes, toiletries, bedding and other household wares, including furniture for a “Free Furniture Friday” event to benefit tornado victims.
Without the help of the volunteers, that event never could have happened, said Terri Hibbard, director.
Serving side-by-side, trip participants discovered the power of working together in unity “as the body of Christ,” several noted. Meaningful relationships blossomed over the course of the week, and hearts were touched, said Quincy Murphy of Indian Creek Baptist Church in Mineral Wells.
Marion Hammett, from The Heights Baptist Church in Richardson, echoed Murphy’s sentiment, saying she couldn’t wait to go back and tell others of her experience.
“What’s going to be fun is to explain the whole blessing part of it – not just what we did, but what we received from it,” she said.
Area churches provided space for volunteers to stay, along with food, water and other supplies. Volunteers recorded service hours to report back to Tuscaloosa’s volunteer reception center for the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
“FEMA reimburses us for all of those hours that we get from our volunteers,” said McCarlie Thomas, safety coordinator at the center. “That helps rebuild our city and our county.”
But in order to rebuild, sometimes people have to tear down, trip participants learned. One woman needed her house to be demolished. Texas Baptist volunteers made sure to stay hydrated while ripping off shingles, shattering windows, smashing in walls and tearing down her house – board by board. One volunteer found a beautiful diamond ring buried in the rubble, which was saved to be returned to its owner.
Other projects included loading and unloading trucks for the Red Cross, rebuilding homes with Habitat for Humanity, sorting food and household items in distribution warehouses, clearing debris, and sawing fallen trees into chunks to be hauled away. Three arborists from North Texas took off work for the week to offer their professional skills in the ministry of restoration – salvaging twisted and fractures trees.
“It was in our heart for us to be here,” said Daniel Record, who owns a tree service in Texas.
Encouraging volunteers during a midweek worship service, Ricardo Brambila, pastor of First Baptist Church in San Isidro, reminded listeners of Jesus’ words in John 16:33, that “in the world you will have tribulation, but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.”
Brambila emphasized that Christ gives peace in all of life’s situations, as the “God of all comfort.”
“God says to you today, in all the devastation, I am with you, and I’m with them, and everything’s going to be all right,” he said.
Following the service, volunteers gave touching and often emotional recounts of faith-building testimonies they had come across from local residents – like Donna Deal’s.
“Before the tornado, I never stopped to think what all went into a tornado and the recovery, and what all is needed,” Deal said. But the fact that “so many people have come” shows God’s love as the body of Christ in action, she added.
“Whether you picked up a nail or slung a hammer or just hugged somebody’s neck or listened to somebody’s story, it’s so important. We appreciate it so much.”
Trip participants only echoed Deal’s appreciation. While hoping to lift up residents of Tuscaloosa, volunteers testified to taking home a blessing themselves – the one that comes by serving with the hands and heart of Christ.
Robin Renfrew, with First Baptist Church in Seminole, wrote about her experience, “A piece of me will always be with the people here in Alabama. … God is always faithful and he is at work all around us. We just have to be open to letting him use us to carry out his perfect plan.”