JACKSON, Tenn. – Feb. 11, 2008– Beverly Absher was teaching a continuing studies class at Union University when a cell-phone caller told her the tornado was northeast of the campus.
Her phone quit working as she rushed students into a Hammons Hall stairwell. Everyone was fairly calm – just concern for loved ones at home. Absher said the students had to realize their lives and those of their loved ones were in God's hands.
As the category EF-4 tornado touched down on Union’s campus, the building began to shake. The tornado generated so much force that the students were amazed to come out of Hammons Hall after the storm passed and see the devastation. Absher’s second-floor office in Hammons was destroyed.
They all knew God had protected everyone, Absher told the congregation at West Jackson Baptist Church.
The tornado that devastated Union University, Feb. 5, was the focus of Sunday morning worship services in several Southern Baptist churches in Jackson. Additionally, many churches met in the evening to plan strategies for helping university officials with clean-up efforts.
Miraculously, no one perished in the tornado at Union that caused about $40 million damage to the campus. Pastor Wendell Lang told the West Jackson congregation that the tornado showed Christians need to have a “sentiment of security” from the Lord.
Although 51 students were treated for injuries at Jackson-Madison County General Hospital, only nine spent the night. On Feb. 11, five students remained in the hospital with two in critical condition – David Wilson from Hixson, Tenn., and Matthew Kelley from Somerville, Tenn.
Chuck Williams told the congregation at Calvary Baptist Church that most people around Jackson were protected in the storm, but many were not. Two people in nearby Huntersville were killed, and three people in Hardin County near Savannah also lost their lives.
“We grieve with those who are grieving today,” Pastor Craig Christina told the congregation of Jackson’s First Baptist Church.
Absher, chair of Union’s Continuing Studies Department, asked the West Jackson congregation to pray the students will find peace as they resume classes next week. She said the students should be more determined in their studies knowing God has a will and purpose for their lives. She said she prays God will build himself up in the students through his grace.
Pastor Ben Mandrell told the Englewood Baptist congregation that “you will never be changed in pleasure like you are in pain.”
As a young pastor, Mandrell said his generation “doesn’t get it” sometimes. He said that “one thing my generation doesn’t understand is that just because we’ve been given much that is not a promise for tomorrow. Through adversity, God teaches us.”
When Jesus went to see Lazarus, Martha thought she would give him a biology lesson — the Lord of creation, Mandrell said. She told Jesus that her brother had been dead four days. But Jesus said in John 11:40: “Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?”
“God has never been tardy; he’s always punctual,” Mandrell said. “We don’t understand the tapestry he is weaving, but he sees the whole picture. This is not a detached Savior; he feels human suffering.”
The cover of the Calvary Baptist Church bulletin read: “The Lord guards the inexperienced; I was helpless and he saved me.” (Psalm 116:6)
Williams, Calvary’s pastor, said the morning after the tornado hit, several members came to the church to pick up debris.
“Someone brought me a teddy bear they had found in the parking lot,” Williams said. “The bear was holding a heart-shaped picture frame. To me, that heart represents a Union student or a member of the community with a broken heart.”
Mandrell said the reaction to the tornado on the national news sometimes seemed like people were saying: “Christians, where is your Jesus now? Where was God Tuesday night?”
Mandrell answered that God “was in little pockets of life under the rubble. He was with faculty and staff who would do anything to help these students.”
Christina reminded the First Baptist congregation that people live in a fallen world where Satan has limited control. God is in control; he is Lord over all creation. But sin has marred God’s creation and the world is less than God intended it to be.
Preaching from Job 1:13-22, Christina listed three purposes why God allows suffering to come into people’s lives: to reveal God’s presence, to release God’s people and to reveal God’s power.
In the midst of a storm, Christina said people ask “Where is God?” He said people have two choices: turn away from God or turn toward God.
“Suffering releases God’s people to stand on our faith,” Christina said. “How do you know about your belief in God unless your faith is tested? When everything is blown away in our lives, it’s the integrity of our faith that’s left.
“That doesn’t mean we have to be super saints for Christ. We can grieve – we’re human beings – and we can go through times of need. But it does mean we know God is with us and He’s going to see us through.”
Christina said suffering releases the Christian’s witness. He said he was sorry the tornado hit the Jackson community and damaged Union University. However, he is proud Christians have been a witness to their faith.
“Here is the Union campus rallying around this (destruction) and being a light to our community,” he said. “So what the devil meant for harm, God has already used for good. People all across this nation have been pointed to Christ.”
Williams asked the Calvary Baptist congregation to pray that people who have had their hearts hardened toward God will stop, reflect and have their hearts open up. “Some people have had their memories jarred about who God is,” he said.
Christina said that seeing the devastation at Union it’s amazing anyone could have been saved. He recalled stories of near-misses and close-calls.
“But it was not chance that saved those students, it was the hand of God,” he said. “Despite the damage caused for the tornado, there was the hand of God. God is still at work. God was in that tornado. We have been released as God’s people to grow deeper in our faith and shine brighter for him.”
By Michael Chute
Kathie Chute, Kristen Chute and Claire Yates contributed to this report.