For churches hit by disaster, Easter brings promise of hope

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FILE- The roof is collapsed between the pews and the organ pipes in the First United Methodist church in Mayfield, Ky., on, Dec. 19, 2021, after the deadly tornado ravaged the city on Dec. 10. In a string of post-tornado firsts, church members will be celebrating Easter Sunday at their temporary home, Christ United Methodist Church. (AP Photo/Brynn Anderson, File)

Easter’s message of renewal will be especially poignant this year for four U.S. congregations rebounding from disasters.

Their churches were destroyed by a tornado in Kentucky, gutted by a blaze in New York City, shattered when Hurricane Ida hit the Louisiana coast, and filled with smoke and ash by the most destructive wildfire in Colorado history. For the pastors, Easter's promise of hope couldn't be more timely as their resilient congregations come to terms with what happened and prepare for what's next.

KENTUCKY

Members of Mayfield First United Methodist Church will not be celebrating Easter in their 100-year-old sanctuary. They can’t.

A Dec. 10 tornado ripped apart their stately building as it carved a deadly path through the western Kentucky community of about 10,000 people. A demolition crew tore down the rest.

Instead, on Easter Sunday, members will walk into their temporary home, Christ United Methodist Church, to mark the holy day.

“That’s going to be tough,” said the Rev. Joey Reed. He rode out the storm at Mayfield First, wondering if he would live to officiate his daughter’s wedding.

Reed started ministering soon after, encouraging his roughly 100 church members to pivot from suffering to servanthood. Congregants walked through the disaster zone assessing needs, passing out thousands of dollars in gift cards and helping residents rescue belongings.

“The example of Jesus Christ is the suffering servant,” he said. “When we turn away from our own difficulties … we are able to let go of our own pain for a minute and focus on our neighbor, which is the core strength of Christianity.”

As the congregation weighs how best to rebuild, they continue to process the tornado’s destruction through waves of grieving and helping. Only in recent weeks – after Reed performed his daughter’s wedding, escaped to a cabin with his wife and mourned the death of their cat, George – did Reed realize he was still carrying around trauma from the storm.

“As much as we place our faith in resurrection and the life that is to come, there’s still that whole idea of what’s it like to leave this one, and I think we’re still parsing that question,” he said.

But there has been hope amid the despair, like the pieces of the church’s baptismal font rescued from the landfill. “We are all about finding those bright spots,” Reed said.

NEW YORK CITY

The Middle Collegiate Church gospel choir swayed to the beat of a live band during a joyful rehearsal at a synagogue that has become their new home.

“It’s Passover and our Jewish friends are exercising the most radical hospitality,” said the Rev. Jacqui Lewis, the church’s senior minister.

Her church was gutted by a fire on Dec. 5, 2020, in what seemed a tragic coda to an already-challenging pandemic year. When Middle Collegiate decided recently to resume in-person worship, East End Temple led by Rabbi Joshua Stanton invited the congregation to share its sacred space while they rebuild.

“It was very clear when the tragedy fell on Middle Collegiate Church that we needed to live out our values, open our doors,” said Stanton, who will offer prayer during the church's Easter celebration.

On Palm Sunday, the choir belted out hymns in preparation for Easter, and even the carols they weren't able to sing together after COVID-19 concerns canceled their in-person Christmas Eve service.

“It feels like a miracle, going through the fire and the pandemic worldwide, all that we’ve gone through… to now have a place to call home,” said Joy Lau, a member of the church's Jerriese Johnson gospel choir.

The multicultural congregation lives what it calls “on-your-feet worship and take-it-to-the-streets activism.” Members have provided meals to people with AIDS, worked on storm recovery, fought for environmental protection and demonstrated for the Black Lives Matter movement, LGBTQ equality and women’s rights.

The belfry of the historic church housed New York’s Liberty Bell, which tolled to mark the birth of the country in 1776 and was later rung for inaugurations, deaths of presidents and in remembrance of the 9/11 terror attacks. The fire spared the bell and left behind a skeletal façade and two vinyl banners reading “Black Lives Matter” and “Just Love,” the church’s motto.

Amid the grief of losing their beloved church, Lewis has asked parishioners to “worship God with joy” and find the promise of hope that is a part of every Easter.

“For Middle, this is a time of resurrection. We keep rising to new challenges and we’re the living body of Christ. More than ever, we understand that and what our mission is, our calling is,” she later said at the site of her charred church.

“The hospitality and the love of the strangers of Judaism that we inherit as Christians is on full display on these weeks that are holy for both communities.”

LOUISIANA

The windows at St. Charles Borromeo Catholic church were blown out, and its ceiling, sacristy and vestibule crumbled after Hurricane Ida blasted ashore in August, hitting the small fishing community of Point-aux-Chenes, about 80 miles (130 kilometers) southwest of New Orleans.

Since then, its pastor, the Rev. Rajasekar Karumelnathan, has celebrated Mass in the rectory and under a tent set up in the church’s parking lot. Attendance dwindled after the storm: from about 80 people who used to attend Sunday services to about 15 worshippers now.

Celebrating Christmas under the ruins was especially emotional for the congregation, the pastor said. But he expects a different, lighter mood for their first post-Ida Easter service, which promises believers eternal life.

“We have lots of hope. We hope that we can reclaim all that we’ve lost,” he said. “Easter strengthens us.”

Parishioner Teddy Neal, who lives a half mile from the church, is still rebuilding his storm-damaged home. He would love to see his church and home rebuilt — restored to what they once were or better.

“I see Easter as a new beginning,” said Neal, a truck driver. "I’m pretty much humbled, where it doesn’t matter what the conditions are in or around with the destruction -- as long as I’m present with Jesus during the Eucharist.”

COLORADO

At the charred remains of Bill and Jackie Stephens’ home in Superior, where they raised four kids and made countless memories over 22 years, the daffodils are blooming again.

When he looks at the green shoots and bright yellow blossoms, Bill Stephens sees rebirth. He also feels grief anew: for the house; the incinerated family photos and videos; the yard they loved on spring days, with its newly laid patio and magnolia tree named after their third child — “Maggie-nolia.”

“As a pastor I see this and go, this is an Easter illustration. It’s life out of the death,” Stephens said. “In some ways it’s beautiful, and in other ways it’s the reminder of, dang, we lost a lot.”

The lead pastor at Ascent Community Church in neighboring Louisville and his loved ones are one of 26 families in the congregation who lost their homes Dec. 30 in a wind-whipped wildfire that destroyed 1,084 residences in Denver-area suburbs. Hundreds more church members were displaced.

The church itself, a cavernous space inside a former Sam’s Club with auditorium seating for 750, was largely spared. The flames wrapped around the building, scorching trees and shrubs in the parking lot. But ash and smoke seeped in through skylights and ventilation shafts, coating everything in sooty charcoal.

Volunteers hauled out everything that wasn’t nailed down to be washed before a building-wide deep clean. Carpets, curtains, walls and lighting were replaced. Ascent returned in February after two months of worshipping in a hotel ballroom.

In the early days, police used Ascent’s parking lot as a staging area for displaced residents to collect passes to enter their neighborhoods. Thousands showed up and were met by church members, therapy dogs and meals. A relief fund raised a couple hundred thousand dollars, and the church reached out to schools on caring for affected students.

As for the congregation, Stephens said suffering his own loss positioned him to minister to others. An adopt-a-family program pairs up households to support people through companionship and tasks like grocery shopping. Volunteer therapists provided counseling and offered group sessions.

Three months after the most destructive blaze in Colorado history, Stephens reminds his flock that people still need help as they navigate trauma and challenges like insurance, housing and debris removal. To his delight, he sees congregants stepping up.

One thing he’s sure of: Christ’s resurrection carries special significance this year.

“That Jesus conquered the grave, conquered the sin ... and breathed life on Easter Sunday,” Stephens said, “there’s something really powerful about thinking about ours as just a minor version of that.”

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Henao reported from New York City, Meyer reported from Nashville, Tennessee, and Orsi reported from Superior, Colorado.

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