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United Methodist churches picking up pieces, providing shelter

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A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer

The Rev. Walt Asher sits in the rubble of Christ United Methodist Church, Dyersburg, Tenn., after a tornado swept through the state April 2.

April 4, 2006

A UMNS Report
By Kathy L. Gilbert*

Deadly storms swept through eight states leaving behind grieving families, destroyed churches, homes and businesses.

The death toll has increased to 28, including one member of Christ United Methodist Church, Dyersburg Tenn., and one member of Bradford (Tenn.) United Methodist Church after tornadoes criss-crossed the Midwest April 2.

Estelle Hickman, a member of Christ United Methodist Church, Dyersburg, Tenn., and her son Travis died when the evening storm tore through their home leaving behind only a concrete slab.

The Rev. Walt W. Asher said Hickman, who was in her 80s, was a faithful, active member of Christ church.

“Whenever the church doors were open she was here,” he said. Christ United Methodist, part of a three-parish charge in Millsfield, has four rooms left standing, said the Rev. Mickey Carpenter, Dyersburg district superintendent.

“The sanctuary is completely gone,” he said. “The volunteer fire department was destroyed and a mile-long swath of forest and trees were left knee high.”

Patsy Lewis, a member of Bradford United Methodist Church died in the storm. A young family of four connected to the church also were killed.

United Methodist buildings known to be destroyed or heavily damaged in Tennessee include Christ United Methodist Church in Millsfield, Bradford United Methodist Church, Griffins Chapel church and parsonage in Rutherford.

In Rutherford, Tenn., the Rev. Garret A. Sweeney along with his wife Lavonna and their son Aaron, survived the storm in a closet. Sweeney is pastor of the Rutherford-Salem-Antioch Charge.

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A UMNS photo by Joe Moseley

The Rev. Garret A. Sweeney and his family took refuge in the closet of their parsonage when a tornado ripped through the area April 2.
“Brother Sweeney told us the storm come over so full of dust and dirt that their mouths were filled with dirt,” said Arland Holt, chairman of the Salem United Methodist Church council. The twister picked up the house and moved it 10 feet off its foundation. All that was left standing was the small closet and the wall to the bathroom.

As many as 15 people died in the Millsfield and Newbern areas, Carpenter said. The latest death toll for Tennessee is 24.

First United Methodist Church, a certified Red Cross response center, has been open to the Dyersburg community since April 2, said the Rev. Phillip Cook, pastor. State officials including Tennessee Governor Phil Bredesen, were touring the state April 4, bringing emergency supplies to the church.

“There are a lot of hurt people here,” Cook said. “They set up a computer in the parking lot of the Dyersburg Hospital Sunday night to meet the people as they came in.”

“We’re in a tornado alley here. We get tornadoes in the spring and the summer, but this one was amazing,” Bredesen told CBS’s “The Early Show” as he prepared to tour the destruction.

Griffins Chapel United Methodist Church, Bradford, Tenn., was heavily damaged and “the parsonage has two trees in it,” Bellew said.

Tennessee suffered the brunt of the storms, but heavy damage has also been reported in Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri. The National Weather Service also reported Iowa, Illinois, Ohio and Indiana were hit when thunderstorms packing tornadoes and hail as big as softballs ripped through the Midwest.

“There is a lot of damage in a lot of places,” said the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, disaster response executive for the United Methodist Committee on Relief. He said an emergency grant has already been sent to the Memphis Annual Conference. Hazelwood said Kentucky and Arkansas will most likely receive grants from UMCOR.

Flood buckets will be needed to send to all the affected areas, Hazelwood said.

In Arkansas, members of Marmaduke United Methodist Church, held hands and prayed as the storm swept through their community, destroying about 70 percent of the town. First United Methodist Church, Paragould, Ark., is serving as a shelter for about 700 evacuees from Marmaduke, Hazelwood reported. The church is collecting relief supplies.

LINK: Click to open full size version of image
A UMNS photo by Cathy Farmer

A sign at Christ United Methodist Church shows the attendance at the Sunday morning worship service before a tornado destroyed the church April 2.
Power lines are down in many areas of Kentucky making it difficult to assess the extent of damage there, Hazelwood said.

In Missouri, Susan Jespersen, administrative assistant in the southeast district, said Caruthersville received extensive damage to homes and property.

The Rev. Dwight Chapman reported that there were injuries but no known deaths. Most of the area is without utilities and roads are closed. He is pastor of Eastwood Memorial United Methodist Church in Caruthersville and Cottonwood Point United Methodist Church in Seneath.

“There was no major damage at the church or parsonage, but several members of the Caruthersville church have lost their homes,” he said.

Other areas of Missouri reporting damage from the storm include Hayti, Deering, Kennett, Caruth and Charleston.

The roof of the 58-member Flat Rock (Ind.) United Methodist Church was blown off by high winds that crossed Indiana March 31. Flat Rock is a small rural town 40 miles southeast of Indianapolis.

According to the Rev. Ida Easley, Rushville district superintendent, the roof damaged the parsonage next door to the church, pushing in six inches on one side of the house. Members removed pews and other furniture on April 1 and damages are being assessed. No one was injured.

In summing up the damage, Bellew said, “It has been bad, but the Lord has been with us.”

*Gilbert is a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. Cathy Farmer, director of communications for the Memphis Annual (regional) Conference; Jane Dennis, editor of the Arkansas United Methodist newspaper, a publication in the Arkansas Annual Conference; Fred Koenig, publications editor for the Missouri Conference Review; and the Rev. Daniel Gangler, communications director for the Indiana Area contributed to this report.

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

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