ONE WEEK LATER: Church destroyed by tornado, Bethel Baptist held service Sunday under a tent

Published 6:51 pm Monday, April 3, 2023

NORTH WEST POINT — There’s a U.S. flag on display in front of a home that was completely wrecked by a tornado Sunday morning a week ago. It could be called the West Point Strong flag, a way of getting across that we are down, we’ve been hurt, but we haven’t been beaten, and we will come back.

One week after a deadly tornado touched down and left much devastation in its wake, people of this close-knit community are grateful no one was killed or seriously injured that day. They are determined to rebuild and have a community that’s better than ever.

The Rev. Chris Hendricks sounded that theme in a Sunday morning worship service at Bethel Baptist Church. He spoke from a lectern set up underneath a Jackson Heating & Air tent erected outside the destroyed church building where he is the pastor. More than 30 people were gathered underneath the tent to hear him bring the message and listened to the beautiful singing of his wife, Stephanie, and 11-year-old daughter Leah.

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Hendricks told the congregation there was no way he could explain the anxiety he felt when he was told at a roadblock he had been stopped at last Sunday that a tornado had done some major damage about a mile or so up Highway 29.

West Point police were keeping people out on the south and Georgia state troopers keeping them out on the north end until power crews could remove lines that were down along the roadway. When they did let Hendricks in, he drove north to see massive devastation not far beyond the West Point city limits sign. Among the badly damaged buildings was his church, Bethel Baptist.

Anxiety is one thing but heartbreak is worse, much worse.

There would be no Sunday service that day. He was confident the church would build back, but how long would that take?

A silver lining to this dark cloud is the fact the tornado had not touched down three hours later when the building would’ve been full of people.

Hendricks’ morning message came from the 14th chapter of the Book of John. It’s the portion of the Bible where Jesus urges his followers to “not let your heart be troubled.”

Hendricks said that this had been on his mind when stopped at the roadblock the previous Sunday.

“This community will build back, and it will be better than ever,” he said. “God tells us that if we have the faith of a mustard seed you can move a mountain. A mustard seed is small but can grow into a massive tree. It can be a place where the birds can sing and bring joy to our lives.”

Hendricks encouraged those present to think in terms of God being in control. 

“It was his way of telling us that something new and better needs to be here,” he said. “If something matters to you, it matters to God. When you look at the destruction that surrounds us, there are things we can be grateful for. We have gotten so much help coming from all over to assist in cleaning up the damage and start getting back to normal. The best thing is that two people have come forward to give their lives to God. Being rich, having lots of money in the bank and lots of nice possessions won’t get you into heaven. The only way is to give your life to Christ. Christ is your only hope.”

Among those at the service were volunteers who have come to West Point to help in the cleanup. Jim Patton of Comer, Georgia is with Georgia Baptist Disaster Relief. 

“We have worked at 64 houses this week,” he told The Valley Times-News. “We’ve been putting tarps over some roofs, cutting up downed trees and cleaning up yards.”

Patton said a number of volunteer groups were in the community helping out in any way they could. 

“We are the initial response. More groups will be coming to help as well,” he said.

The volunteers include a family of six from Montezuma, Georgia. They are with Christian Aid Ministries and have been passing out buckets and cleaning supplies.

Floyd and Donna George of LaGrange were on the grounds of the church. They were cooking some delicious barbecue chicken and making free plates of chicken, potato salad and baked beans for members of the church and volunteers who came to help clean up. 

“We ought to be getting used to this,” he said. “This is the third storm we have done this for since the first of the year.”

There were lots of cable company trucks in the neighborhood. Their crews were restoring wires that had come down in the tornado.

West Point Gymnasium has served as the headquarters of the American Red Cross this week. A number of people who have been left homeless by the tornado have had a place to stay, to have a bed to sleep in, food to eat and communications with people who can make living arrangements for them.

“We will be here as long as a need is present,” Red Cross spokesman Jamie Huff told The VT-N. “I have worked with anywhere from 75 to 100 people this week,” he said. “Most of them lost everything — a livable home, their clothes, food, and many personal belongings. We have feeding teams that will be here as long as the need is present. Some people have been here since last Sunday.”

This has been a challenging year for aid organizations in the middle Georgia region. In January, two Red Cross stations were open in LaGrange and two in Griffin.

Huff is from LaGrange. He’s been with the Red Cross since 2014. 

“I have traveled all over Georgia since then,” he said. “We go where we are needed. Everyone will need help in some way sooner of later. Sometimes it’s just a small helping hand, and sometimes it’s a big one.”

Huff said that what happened north of West Point is in need of one of those big helping hands.

 “There was a ton of damage there,” he said. “Our job here at West Point gym is to see that disaster victims have a place to sleep, are properly fed and have a means to get information that will help them with the resources they need.”

“The Red Cross is here to help, but bigger help needs to come from the local community,” Huff said. “I think that is available here. The City of West Point and Troup County have been most helpful. I can’t say enough about how helpful they have been. I have been in communication with the West Point Police Chief Kevin Carter, city officials, Troup  County commissioners, Sheriff James Woodruff, the marshal’s office, Congressman Drew Ferguson. They have all stepped forward and offered to help in any way they can. There is a very good support structure in this area, and that will be needed in getting these people back to normal.”