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Church copes with storms, racial allegations


5:00 P.M. EDT June 23, 2011 | CORDOVA, Ala. (UMNS)

Remnants of Long Memorial United Methodist Church overlook the tattered downtown in Cordova, Ala. UMNS photos by Kathy L. Gilbert.
Remnants of Long Memorial United Methodist Church overlook the tattered downtown in Cordova, Ala. UMNS photos by Kathy L. ilbert. View in Photo Gallery

On April 27, four people died and everyone else in this small town had their lives changed forever when two tornadoes – hours apart – stripped away homes, businesses, city offices and churches in a matter of seconds.

For members of Long Memorial United Methodist Church, their hearts are as broken as the stately 100-year-old church that stands wounded on a hill overlooking lots scattered with debris, bare remnants of broken trees and a destroyed downtown.

They are also living with a nightmare story that their church denied shelter to a victim of the storm. A 16-year-old survivor who lost his mother and two friends in the second tornado that wrecked Cordova on that day is telling the story.

Attempts to reach Madison Phillips for this story were unsuccessful, however news media have quoted him as saying he and his mother were turned away when she asked “a woman” at the church’s front door if they could come in.

Annette Singleton, Phillips’ mother, went back to her home. When the second monster tornado blew through town, Phillips and two friends, Jonathan Doss, 12, and Justin Doss, 10, were in the house with Singleton. Phillips is the only survivor.

Phillips has said he thinks they were turned away because they were black. Allegations of racism became so heated at one point that civil rights organizations in Birmingham considered marching on the town, according to the Rev. Ryan Rosser, Long Memorial’s pastor.

More than 30 people sought shelter in Long Memorial United Methodist Church on April 27 when a deadly tornado struck the town of Cordova, Ala.
More than 30 people sought shelter in Long Memorial United Methodist Church on April 27 when a deadly tornado struck the town of Cordova, Ala.
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Now church members struggle with a story they do not believe could have happened the way it is being portrayed by the media.

“It hurts me to see our church slandered like it is,” said Jack Scott, Cordova’s mayor and a member of Long Memorial.

One rumor alleged Scott and his daughters were the ones who turned Singleton and Phillips away. Another rumor had Rosser standing at the church doors, turning people away.

But Rosser and Scott – and Scott’s wife and daughters – were all at their homes when the tornado struck around 5 p.m.

Rosser talked with black ministers in Cordova, assuring them no member of Long Memorial ever told anyone they could not seek shelter in the church.

Still, Phillips said “a woman” turned them away.

Who was she? Was there a misunderstanding between Singleton and the unknown woman? Why was Singleton asking for shelter in the middle of the day when the storm didn’t come through until late afternoon? Those questions haunt Rosser and members of Long Memorial.

A tale of two storms

Most people were home asleep when the first storm roared through around 5:30 a.m. A family came to Rosser’s home around 5 a.m., awakening him and asking for shelter in the church. The couple and their three small children live in a low-income housing complex and were frightened by weather reports that 100-mph winds were heading straight for Cordova.

“I hopped out of bed and went to unlock the church,” Rosser said. He then returned home and waited for the first tornado to pass.

“After the storm got through, everything was OK at the church. We went downtown and looked around,” he said. People were gathering to see the damage and attempting to save things from their stores and other businesses. The first storm knocked out power to the entire area. Around 11 a.m., officials blocked the downtown area to keep people away. Construction workers and volunteers were working to clear the streets and restore power.

The Rev. Ryan Rosser Jamie Rosser.
The Rev. Ryan Rosser Jamie Rosser.
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Days before the tornadoes, weather forecasters had been predicting stronger storms would hit in the afternoon. Rosser left the church doors unlocked so anyone needing shelter that afternoon could go inside the church.

Rosser and his wife, Jamie, were a few streets over from the church in the parsonage when a thick black cloud descended over the town around 5 p.m. They went to a small bathroom inside their home with their three dogs.

“We could hear the jets coming, it sounded like three jets, I felt a massive wind come under the door of the bathroom and Jamie said she could hear trees falling,” Rosser said. “I felt the house seem to want to lift. In five seconds it was over.”

Scott said he thought the first tornado was bad but he had no idea what was in store for the town a few hours later.

“There wasn’t 50 feet difference in the path of the two storms,” he said. “I bet we lost 90 percent of our trees. We had trees galore.”

Scott said the power outage caused by the first storm probably saved many lives. If power had been working, many folks would have been downtown shopping, conducting everyday business. As it happened, the only people out at the time of the second storm were repair teams restoring the electric and telephone lines.

One AT&T worker, who asked not to be identified, credits the open church with saving his life.

“We were working in the street when a man came and told us we needed to take shelter in the church. They were gathering up every living person they could find and taking them to the church,” he said. “I know for a fact there were some black people in the church because they were working with us. As far as the church turning somebody away, I don’t believe it for a minute.”

Scott said the workers who sought shelter in the church passed the hat and gave a donation to the church. “A guy said, ‘We took safety in the church and we wanted to do something.’”

Seemed like an eternity

Jerald Brown, a nurse at the local hospital and a member of Long Memorial, lives across the street from the church and was working the night shift when the first storm hit. When he arrived home, he started helping firefighters and police cut trees and clear roads.

Around 4 p.m., his long night at the hospital and hours of hard work caught up with him and he was “out of gas,” he said.

“I told them I needed to go lay down, they said another storm was supposed to be coming. I said, ‘Thirty minutes, I just need to sleep for 30 minutes then I will be back.’”

He walked to his house, set his alarm for 30 minutes and fell asleep on his couch.

Mayor Jack Scott
Mayor Jack Scott
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“The next thing I knew part of the garage from the Freewill Baptist Church was coming through the side of my house and I was getting hit by shingles.”

He jumped up and ran outside. The storm got louder and the wind got stronger. He couldn’t get back inside his house because of debris that was blocking the door.

“The first thing I thought was that the storm was going to disintegrate my house and take me to Georgia or Tennessee or somewhere,” he said. Before he could do anything else, the storm ended.

“It seemed like an eternity but in retrospect it was probably 30 to 45 seconds from the time I woke up to the time it was over.”

He started checking on his neighbors and then he ran down the street toward the church. A worker came up and told him people were hurt everywhere down the hill.

“As I started down the hill I ran into a black kid around 15 or 16 years old. He was sitting on some rocks with a T-shirt wrapped around his head. All he could tell me was that his name was Madison. He couldn’t tell me where he lived or how he got there. I asked him what was wrong with his head and he said it hurt.

“I told him I was going to look at it. When I took the T-shirt off, his scalp just fell off on the back of his shoulder. I picked it up and cleaned it with bottled water. I tried to blast out the debris and then bandage him back up.”

By this time ambulances were arriving but could not get close to the site. Brown asked someone to bring in a backboard for the boy. They put a brace on his neck and got him to the ambulance. That was the last Brown saw of him.

Brown said he found one white boy dead and was told a black woman and another white boy were also dead in a ditch. The fourth victim, a friend of Brown’s, was crushed in the basement of a home he shared with his stepmother and father on the other side of town. The stepmother and father survived.

Brown sees the damaged church every time he walks out his door. “It was two or three days before I could look at the church without crying,” he said.

Brown said he didn’t hear the rumor about someone from the church denying shelter to the boy and his mother until someone at the hospital asked him about an article that ran in the Birmingham newspaper. A similar article detailing the allegation appeared in the New York Times.

“I can’t imagine who was there that could have turned anybody away,” he said. “The basement had a lot of people in it. Nobody from our church would have done that. I don’t know anybody in this town who would have done that.”

In the days after the tornadoes, members cleared out the church’s food pantry and took the food to the high school, where volunteers were cooking and distributing meals to the community. Church members joined in the cooking and helped in any way they could, Rosser said.

Everyone was running around town helping people with the necessities of life – food, water, shelter, trying to make sure no one was bleeding to death, Jamie Rosser said. “It wasn’t one day at a time; it was one hour at a time.”

Something big is coming

Donna King, a Sunday school teacher, youth co-director and director of children's church at Long Memorial, lives on the other side of town. Her home was not damaged in the storms.

She said she is a transplant to Cordova and has lived there for about 20 years.

“Long Memorial is why this feels like home to me,” she said. “God brings you to places for reasons you can’t imagine and it just turns into home.”

She has struggled with the story of her church denying shelter.

“I have tried to think, what could have really happened. I cannot in any way wrap my heart around that it really happened the way it is being reported.”

The incident has caused her to think about how her actions reflect on her church.

“Every word that we speak, is that a reflection on the place where we choose to serve God and worship?”

If the bad a church member might do is a reflection, then maybe the good also is, she said.

A few weeks before the storm, King had an encounter with Singleton at a restaurant where Singleton was working.

“I went in there and I was carrying a purse that was a gift from my parents. I had had it for a long time and I really didn’t use it much because I thought it was too heavy and I really didn’t like it that much. Ms. Singleton said, ‘I love that purse. That is the neatest purse I have ever seen, where did you get it?’ And she just kept on talking about my purse. I said, ‘You like this purse?’ And she said yes. I asked her if she had a Walmart bag and she said yes. I got the bag and I said, ‘You hold it open,’ and I just emptied the contents of my purse into the Walmart bag, shook the dirt out of the purse and handed it to her.”

King said she saw Singleton out in town a few times later with the purse on her arm.

“People don’t want to hear that, those stories are not as much fun to tell,” she said. “I just cannot make myself believe (the other) story. I can go through my mind and see every face of every person in church and I cannot find one that would have turned someone away from our church. They wouldn’t have turned someone away from their house.”

She is not saying Phillips’ story is untrue but she feels there must have been some kind of misunderstanding.

“It is very hurtful. I don’t have a concept of how we can fix it except to just keep being the church that God has called us to be. When it gets right to the heart of the people who know us and know about our church, I just don’t think they believe it either.”

Rosser said he doesn’t know how to fix it either. He has not talked to Phillips. He said it took about two weeks after the tornado for him to get organized enough to hold church services again. Long Memorial started worshipping at Williams Chapel United Methodist Church in the town of Jasper, about 10 miles from Cordova.

By that time, Rosser said, Phillips had gone to Hawaii to live with his brother.

“It just seems like if I try to do anything it will just perpetuate the story. I would love to sit down and talk to him someday but I just really don’t know what to do.

“I don’t feel like the spirit is leading me to talk to him. I am not saying he isn’t telling the truth but I don’t know who this lady was. I don’t understand why in the middle of the day Singleton was looking for shelter when the sun was shining and it was a pretty day.”

King said she believes God has something great in store for the church.

“If we are being attacked in this way, what is God about to do here? God has got to be getting ready to do something big that he is preparing us for.”

“Amen,” said Rosser.

*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn.

News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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  • Diane 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    Are all of the people interviewed for this story white? What is the percentage of African-American members/regular worshipers at Long Memorial? What is their perspective? Is there a historically black UMC in this town? I am not passing judgment on whether this event occurred (I'm not sure we'll ever know that), but I think that the UMNS needs to place the story within the context of historic racism in the United States and, to our shame, in The United Methodist Church. What is it about this context that makes so many people believe that this racist act not only could but *did* happen?
  • Creed Pogue 1 comment collapsed Collapse Expand
    What's really sad is that newspapers (including the NY Times) ran with this story without checking anything out.

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