- The latest tornado-spawning storms to hit the U.S. resulted in at least 32 deaths as well as widespread property damage, including to three United Methodist church buildings in the Arkansas Conference.
- Arkansas Conference Bishop Laura Merrill toured some of the worst affected areas of her state, including Wynne, Arkansas.
- Relief and recovery efforts are gearing up in the Arkansas Conference and other annual conferences.
Storms generating multiple tornadoes swept across three regions of the U.S. this weekend, leaving at least 32 people dead and creating widespread and severe property damage, including at three United Methodist churches in Arkansas.
Damage assessments are still underway, and more than a few United Methodists will be spending part of this Holy Week in relief and recovery efforts.
Arkansas Conference Bishop Laura Merrill visited Wynne, in east Arkansas, on April 2. Two days earlier, a massive tornado there killed four people and leveled much of the town.
Wynne First United Methodist Church suffered major exterior and interior damage, as photos shared by the bishop made clear.
“The steeple was taken off the top, turned on its side and then kind of injected into the side of the building. It was really something to see,” Merrill said by phone.
The church held a brief outside worship service on April 2, but will be looking for a place to meet inside for Easter.
Wynne First United Methodist Church, in the east Arkansas town of Wynne, shows the effects of a March 31 tornado that killed four people and caused widespread destruction. Photos by Bishop Laura Merrill.
“It’s a great big sanctuary that probably is structurally unsound at this point,” Merrill said.
The Rev. Matt Carter, Wynne First United Methodist’s pastor, offered a report via Facebook.
“(The) Wynne First United Methodist building was in the direct path of the storm but thankfully no one was there,” he said. “It could have been so much worse. God is good and He will do great things, even in this. Please pray for our community and neighbors.”
Damage caused by a March 31 tornado is apparent at Wynne First United Methodist Church, in Wynne, Ark. No one was at the church when the twister hit, and the pastor said the effects “could have been so much worse.” Photo of damage by Bishop Laura Merrill; inset photo courtesy of Wynne First United Methodist Church.
Merrill was not able to get to McElroy United Methodist in Wynne. It, too, was badly damaged.
Amboy United Methodist Church in North Little Rock was the third Arkansas Conference church known to have been severely damaged in the storms.
Merrill met with Amboy United Methodist members on April 1, and noted “grief and shock,” but that wasn’t all.
“This was a moment for them to begin to think about what the next chapter for them might look like,” she said.
The storms that first hit on March 31 came just a week after the tornado destruction in and around Rolling Fork, Mississippi. The latest storms sparked tornadoes in the South, the Midwest and on into the Northeast.
Death reports came in from scattered locations, including McNairy County in west Tennessee. Nine people were killed there.
Morris Chapel United Methodist Church, in Hardin County, Tenn., shows the effects of a March 31 tornado. Photo by the Rev. Robert Craig.
Morris Chapel United Methodist Church in nearby Hardin County was badly damaged, news reports showed. The Rev. Robert Craig, disaster response coordinator for the Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference, got a look at the destruction during a visit April 3, and took photos.
The First United Methodist Church in Selmer, Tennessee, the seat of McNairy County, was spared, and some women of the church had been helping to prepare meals for local victims, said church administrative assistant Vickie James.
Another place where storms turned lethal was Sullivan County in Indiana, which is under a state of emergency.
Five districts of the Indiana Conference were touched by the storms.
“No churches were damaged, but congregants and communities were affected,” said the Rev. Jennifer Huff, conference missions coordinator. “We are preparing our Indiana early response teams to send them out for tarping roofs, debris cleanup and assessments.”
The Rev. Lance Newton leads Sullivan First United Methodist Church, which, though undamaged itself, includes people reeling from the storms.
“We did have some congregation members who lost family members, as well as homes,” he said.
But the pastor has been encouraged by the local response.
“We’re seeing an amazing outpouring of support and love,” Newton said.
United Methodist relief and recovery efforts are gearing up in other conferences. The Arkansas Conference, for example, has taken on providing specific items of need for tornado victims, and will be collecting and distributing from command centers set up at United Methodist churches.
“We are getting our supplies ready and our people on the ground, mostly in central Arkansas,” said Sheri Mathews, disaster response coordinator for the Arkansas Conference.
The Tennessee-Western Kentucky Conference already has teams doing debris removal in Covington, Tennessee, and will be sending volunteers to the McNairy County area by midweek, said Amy Hurd, conference director of communications.
The Midwest Mission Distribution Center, a ministry of the North Central Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church, has begun to move tornado recovery kits to affected areas, said Paul Black, director of communication ministries for the Illinois Great Rivers Conference.
Meanwhile, the United Methodist Committee on Relief is reaching out.
“We are currently in communication with leadership from the Arkansas Conference to process a $10,000 solidarity grant,” said Susan Clark, chief communications officer for the United Methodist Board of Global Ministries, which includes UMCOR.
Some conferences, including Arkansas, are asking for donations for their disaster relief ministries.
Merrill said she’s been moved by hearing of all the memories people have connected with church buildings devastated by the recent storms in her state.
But there’s hope to be found in this hard time, she said.
“Even if the building is lost, nothing is lost in the economy of God … . God can take faithful hearts and stories of faithfulness and do something new.”