Houses of worship were among those hit especially hard when historically severe tornadoes and storms rolled through north Alabama ten years ago.
“Hit” isn’t a metaphor, either: In Cullman, the April 27, 2011 tornado completely destroyed both Christ Lutheran Church and East Side Baptist Church. It extensively damaged several others, including St. John’s Evangelical Church and First United Methodist Church, before continuing a path of destruction that ravaged Fairview and other communities east of Cullman.
Christ Lutheran rebuilt on its former site, and East Side Baptist moved a few blocks down the road to construct its new building at the intersection of U.S. Highway 278 and Convent Road. Many of those churches’ ministerial leaders in 2011 have since moved away or retired.
For this article, The Times attempted Monday afternoon to contact church leaders who can recall the day’s events from a decade ago, including East Side Baptist outreach pastor Sam Hollis and former Christ Lutheran minister Sandy Sandy Niiler. A greeter at First United Methodist said by phone it’s difficult to track down an appropriate spokesperson in 2021 who was also on the scene in 2011.
But from a certain point of view, framing the 2011 devastation in terms of today’s hazy hindsight, when there are fewer and fewer people available to swiftly to recall its effects, tells a recovery story of its own. In the storms’ immediate aftermath, as well as in the week and months that followed, the religious community in Cullman closed ranks (and, in most cases, overlapped) with the community at large — and with a concerted effort all around, successfully put one of the worst days in this area’s history behind it for good.
One person who was there in 2011, and is quick to recall the community’s response, is Rev. Dr. John Richter, senior pastor at St. John’s.
“We had just moved into our new facility at Christ Hall, and had moved the Little Lambs Preschool onto the campus earlier that school year. We were just a few months into our new facility,” Richter recalls.
“Our church experienced several hundred thousand dollars in damage, but it pales in comparison with the scale of the total devastation that our neighbors at Christ Lutheran and East Side endured — as well as the loss of life and stories of personal loss that occurred in our community and across Alabama.
“What I do remember, and it made an impression on me, was that people of faith from across our community came together and offered assistance in whatever way they could. Our membership immediately responded with what we ended up calling the ‘Tornado Café’ — an organized way to serve food. We served and prepared literally thousands of meals out of our new facility. Other churches and organizations staged similar responses to address the need that surrounded them as well.”
The interfaith spirit of cooperation that Richter references is more than rose-tinted hindsight. Hollis told The Times in 2016 that East Side worshipers were grateful for the helping hand that another local church extended to assure life, such as it was, could retain a sense of continuity as the congregation pursued its plans to rebuild.
“[O]ne thing that really stands out to me is how the people at Christ Covenant Presbyterian Church worked with our congregation for more than two years to give us a place to worship,” he said. “…I’ve been in the ministry for over 50 years, and and it’s one of the best things I have ever seen in all that time — how their church took us in. We were there for two years, and I never once sensed any indication of negativity concerning our being in their facility.”
Locally, though the storm concentrated its worst destruction on the densely-built City of Cullman, the story was the same across the community, from storm-tattered Hanceville to the Fairview area, where the EF-4 tornado wrought some of its most impressive damage. Whether they were directly affected or not, churches from across Cullman County pitched in — and Richter says the overall cooperative effort held its own intrinsic rewards for those who took part.
“In our case, it was such a wonderful community spirit within the congregation,” he recalls. “But to be able to share that with the wider community as a whole…it really reflected the beautiful community spirit that we saw at every turn after the storm, in the weeks and months — really, even in the years — that followed.”