Tornado-Damaged Alabama Churches Reopen

By JAMON SMITH, The Tuscaloosa News | March 4, 2014

Two Alberta churches that were destroyed by the tornado that decimated that section of the city on April 27, 2011, have reopened their doors after being displaced for nearly three years.

The fact that this is home is like being gone from home for so long and then coming back,” said the Rev. Jeremy Griffith, pastor of LifePointe Church of God, which was called Alberta Church of God before the tornado.

“When people walked in here, I’ve heard people say, ‘This is home. The presence of God is here. We don’t have to worry about anything. This is home,’ ” he said, while sitting in the foyer of the newly rebuilt church now located in Cottondale. “For them to be displaced for three years and then come in here … man, I’ve seen crying, I’ve seen laughing, people rejoicing over and over and over. I’ve seen people standing to their feet worshipping. It’s like a kid with a new toy.”

It’s been a long, trying and transformative three years for the ministers and members of Alberta Baptist and LifePointe. But now that their journey back to independence and full operation is finally over, the pastors have looked back at the ordeal, and all they see are blessings in disguise.

Before the tornado, Alberta Baptist was a 90-year-old, 66,000 square-foot, all-white, 600-member church that did little outreach in the surrounding, mostly black and low-income Alberta community. But after the tornado destroyed more than 50,000 square feet of the church’s property months after the church completed a $1.8 million major renovation, the church had to do some soul-searching.

“What the tornado did is it literally got us outside the walls of our church and into the neighborhoods,” said the Rev. Larry Corder, pastor of Alberta Baptist. “There were cultural barriers and racial barriers, but those walls really started to come down big time after the tornado.

“We have some members of our church now who are black. We used to be an all-white church for years. In fact, back in the 1970s – I was off in seminary – some blacks visited the church from the university and were turned away. They came back with some TV crews with them and it was just a really negative blight on our church. The people that were part of turning them away are all dead and gone now. And the new mindset of our church is, `All are welcome here.’ ”

Since the tornado, Alberta Baptist has worshipped at Open Doors Baptist Church in Northport. But they’ve come back to Alberta regularly to distribute sack lunches to the community every Sunday, serve hot meals on Fridays, given clothes, appliances and furniture to Alberta residents in need, started walking through Alberta praying for people, held a free home-cooked Thanksgiving meal for the community, given away bicycles and other gifts to children on Easter and Christmas, started serving meals at Bible studies, thrown pizza and ice cream parties in their parking lot that are open to the community, started a tutoring program at Crescent East public housing in Holt and more.

Corder said it’s become the church’s mission to have a positive impact on Alberta. They particularly would like to help families stay together and increase the moral and spiritual values of the community’s people.

“We’ve developed some really good relationships with people who live here in the community and our Bible studies are some of the only times they step into a church,” Corder said. “We learned that you have to do whatever it takes to network with people and that’s what we’ve been doing for three years now, which is building relationships. People have really started to see that we care about this community.”

The rebuilt Alberta Baptist isn’t as large as it once was. The congregation has decreased by 100 members and the church itself is about 16,000 square feet smaller than it used to be.

But something else good beside the change in the congregation’s outlook came out of the tornado. The new church is nearly debt free.

“With the $1.8 million renovation we finished before the tornado, we had just put a three-story elevator in, new stained glass windows, enlarged the front foyer, put in new walls … Everything was new,” Corder said. “The renovation took more than four years. Initially I thought that it was all for naught. But I later realized that it was for the good.

“God had a plan. God was in that because we had increased our insurance when we made the renovations. We wouldn’t be in this building now if we hadn’t done that. We would have gotten about $3.5 million from our insurance instead of being insured for more than $7 million, which is what we had increased our insurance to.”

The rebuilt Alberta Baptist cost $6.6 million. Because of the insurance, increased giving from members and donations, the church only has $70,000 left to pay off.

The new church has a coffee bar that will serve free coffee for a year and has Wi-Fi, a nursery, a basketball court and numerous other additions.

Griffith was pastor of LifePointe for six months before the tornado destroyed the 51-year-old, 4,500-square-foot church.

On that day, the tornado reduced the church and its parsonage to a pile of rubble that buried Griffith, his wife, daughters and several church members. But no one was hurt.

“All we felt was a slight spring breeze,” Griffith said in June 2012. “It was like the Lord held us beneath His wing, protecting us.”

Griffith said he would have never imagined that God would take LifePointe from that pile of rubble to new church that’s more than three times larger than the original with nearly six times the members.

“We’ve grown from 60 members to 353,” he said. “I believe we’ve grown so much after the tornado because we have a sense of unity now. The church has really come together after the tornado. We’ve seen how quick life can be taken away from us. Life is but a vapor.

“We’re not promised tomorrow. When the church saw the devastation of the tornado and what it did in Tuscaloosa, the church caught the vision of going after the lost. They said, ‘Hey, Jesus is alive. We need to reach everyone that we possibly can.’ So everyone started working together Kingdom-minded. We started doing a lot of outreach, reaching people and not judging anyone by the color of their skin, how much money is in their bank account, or where they’re from. Just caring about where they’re going. Man, when everyone caught that, it started happening. Just allowing God to have His way.”

The church worshipped at Woodhaven Church of the Nazarene – now called Cross Pointe – for the first year and a half after the tornado. While there, their 60-member congregation grew to 200.

“They helped us so much and we wouldn’t be where we are now if they hadn’t opened their doors,” Griffith said of Cross Pointe.

After leaving Cross Pointe, Davis-Emerson Middle School opened its doors to the church. While there, their numbers increased to more than 300. And since they moved into their new 16,000 square-feet church in Cottondale four weeks ago, their membership has grown to 353.

“We can seat 400 people here,” he said.

Rebuilding cost LifePointe more than $3 million. Insurance covered most of the cost, and members and donators covered much of the rest. They owe $1 million before the church is paid off.

Griffith said they couldn’t rebuild in Alberta because they only had 1.7 acres of land and Tuscaloosa’s new building codes were too stringent to comply with.

They searched for property in other parts of Tuscaloosa, but they gave up because the cost per acre cost too much.

“We all came together and we prayed,” Griffith said. “The Lord led us to this spot. We bought this property and began to do the work. People started coming by saying `We have watched the construction from when there was nothing here until now. Every time we drove by, even when the construction started, we felt God was drawing us to come in here.’ And those people have come here.”

Of all the lessons that the tornado and the years following have taught LifePointe, Griffith said the most significant was that God answers prayers.

“There were times during this thing that we got discouraged,” he said. “There were times that some of us … some of us wanted to just quit. I was one of them. … The enemy was telling me after the tornado that ‘this is the perfect time for you to go back and work a secular job. Let someone else with more experience come in and carry this church through this devastation.’

“And then a buddy of mine called me who’s an evangelist, and he said, ‘Now Jeremy, I know you’re going through a lot and you feel like quitting. But Jesus is walking in the middle of this storm, but you have to find Him. Just like the disciples when they were on the sea, and the Bible said they would have passed Him by if they had not recognized Him.’

“I took a couple of days to myself and I said, ‘Lord, you’ve gotta help me through this.’ And He did. I got in contact with Him. He reassured me and I felt in my spirit that He was there. We haven’t looked back since then.”

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