Church members worship together after tornadoes

Renee Featherston from Braden Memorial United Methodist Church attends worship with her great-great niece, 6-year-old Caliyah Crenshaw, at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church in Nashville, Tenn. The churches worshiped together at Gordon on the Sunday following the March 3 tornado that heavily damaged the Braden Memorial. (Photo by Kathleen Barry, UM News)

The Rev. Tommy Shelton began his Sunday sermon seated on a stool. “I don’t have the strength to stand,” he admitted.

The pastor, also a police sergeant in the Nashville suburb of Mount Juliet, spent the past week leading search-and-rescue among homes destroyed by the EF-3 tornado that cut a jagged path across Middle Tennessee. He told UM News on March 8 that he also “had to work the scenes of those who did not make it.”

Now he sat before worshippers seeking comfort for their own losses, including two century-year-old buildings of Dodson Chapel United Methodist Church. Shelton has preached there in recent months.

Shelton choked up as he reflected on the past week.

“This community is hurting,” he said. “So many people don’t know what to do. But this week I’ve seen the love and support of this community come together stronger than I’ve ever seen it before in my life.”

The prayer service at nearby Hermitage United Methodist Church, where Shelton is associate pastor, drew some 100 people — far more than the 40 worshippers who regularly attend Dodson Chapel.

At least 24 people died in as a result of tornadoes in Middle Tennessee late March 2 and early March 3, according to the Tennessee Emergency Management Agency. Eighteen of the dead were in Putnam County, but deaths were also reported in Davidson, Wilson and Benton counties. Nearly 600 buildings sustained heavy damage or were destroyed, according to ABC News.

In North Nashville, at Gordon Memorial United Methodist Church, the Rev. Paula Smith asked that people in the pews who had helped out in some way after the tornado tore through the city to raise their hands. Many did.

“Just wave your hands, everybody, if you’ve already helped out or you plan on helping out in the future,” Smith said. “I want to see every hand up in here, whether you helped or you plan on helping.”

Just about all of the 300 or so people in the church raised their hands.

Gordon was hosting the East Nashville congregation of Braden Memorial United Methodist Church, which sustained heavy damage, including the destruction of its steeple.

“I’m sorry that our church got hit by the tornado,” said Mary Crenshaw, a member of Braden. “But any church I attend, I feel safe in.”

Bishop William T. McAlilly of the Nashville Episcopal Area, along with disaster relief coordinator Robert Craig and several leaders from the United Methodist Committee on Relief, hopscotched across Middle Tennessee, showing their support at several services.

“These are two of our historic black churches in the city,” McAlilly said at Gordon. “Their coming together to worship and support one another is a powerful witness for our community.”

United Methodists in Africa are praying for their brethren in Tennessee, said East Congo Area Bishop Gabriel Unda Yemba of the Episcopal Region. The Tennessee Conference has a long partnership with East Congo.

“I called all of my faithful to prayers to support them morally and spiritually,” Unda said.

Smith, pastor at the Gordon church in Nashville, urged her flock not to try and skip over the grieving process.

“Everything is not alright. We are hurting,” she said

“Give yourself permission during this time. Anybody feeling any anxiety this week? Anybody been afraid this week? Uncertain of what the future will hold for ourselves? Anybody feel any loss this week?

“I just want to remind you that God is our source of hope, of peace, of restoration and healing in all our broken places.”

This story was compiled and reported by Joey Butler, Heather Hahn and Jim Patterson, UM News reporters in Nashville, Tennessee.