This story is one in a series by Kentucky Today leading up to the one-year anniversary of the tornado outbreak in western Kentucky.
Mayfield, Kentucky. December 10, 2021 is one of the most significant dates in the history of this west Kentucky community.
A tornado claimed 24 lives and leveled most of the downtown business district. But in the midst of that tragic evening, “we have seen the Lord work in incredible ways,” said Wes Fowler, pastor of First Baptist Church Mayfield.
Fowler said one phrase comes to mind when reflecting on that fateful evening. “We can find beauty in tragedy,” Fowler said.
“That is what we are trying to focus on,” he noted. “Obviously we don’t like tragedy and difficult times. There’s been a lot of struggle, difficulty and pain — but in the middle of it we have seen beauty. We have seen the Lord provide opportunities for us to serve our community in ways we were not able to before.”
The tornado tracked across 11 counties in western Kentucky — a distance of 165.7 miles — the longest length for a tornado in U.S. history.
FBC Mayfield is located in the downtown area, and is one of few buildings still standing.
“There were buildings on our left and our right that are no longer there,” Fowler said.
“But ours is there,” he said. “As we rebuild Mayfield, our church building will be right in the center of the rebuild, and we’re grateful for that. I really think we are on a good path to recovery, but it will be a long path. I am on some of the teams planning to build and rebuild, but it will be a 3–5 year plan to get us back. Things are happening, but they happen slowly.”
He noted, “We are unable to use any portion of our facility right now — we have about 100,000 square feet of space that we are having to renovate. The exterior is good and will be fine, but everything in the interior has to be redone.”
Work is underway on the building, he noted, and he estimates that it may be late summer or early fall before the sanctuary is completed — and it is still a year or two away from the rest of the building being finished.
Worship services are being held at the Performing Arts Center at Graves County High School on Sundays at 9:30 a.m. The church has about 12 Sunday School classes meeting throughout the week at people’s homes and businesses across the community.
Fowler said he has preached over the years that you don’t have to have a building to be the church.
“Now we are living that,” he said. “It doesn’t feel terrible, and we don’t take for granted meeting on Sunday mornings. We enjoy every moment we have.”
Understanding that the church has an expanded missions field, Fowler said the tornado “helped us to think about a segment of the population that we might not have ministered to quite well before. We’ve been knocking on doors, asking people if they need any assistance. We do three things — we invite people to church, we ask if they have faith in the Lord and we get to share the gospel with them.”
He noted, “When you are helping someone recover, they are open to hearing what you have to say. We have conversations with people who are hurting, who are lost. We don’t want the tragedy, we wouldn’t want it again — but we can find beauty in the middle of devastation.
“We’ve seen professions of faith and baptisms — in addition to a good number of people who have become a part of our church body who have never been on our campus before. They are not even looking forward to moving back (to the downtown site) because they’ve never been on our campus. Yes, it has been difficult and hard, but there has also been a great deal of beauty right in the middle of tragedy.”
In the FBC Mayfield church family, there were 13 families who lost everything or sustained heavy property damage, plus one family had a husband die.
“We are certainly helping those families get back on their feet,” Fowler said. “A lot of people across Kentucky and the United States gave generously to our church with the intention of us helping tornado victims. We have used those funds faithfully and generously to help people.
“Sometimes it has been to help rebuild a house or buy a car — in some cases it helped to make ends meet because of loss of income. Sometimes it was simple stuff, like food or gas. We’ve tried to use those funds that were given so faithfully to help people.”
On the heels of COVID-19
The tornado came on the heels of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We were getting back to a good place when the tornado hit,” Fowler said. “But we are having multiple guests every week. This past Sunday we had 10–15 guests, and it has been really neat to see them and welcome them.”
Fowler recalled John 9, when the disciples asked Jesus why a man had been born blind. Jesus responded by saying it was so the works of God would be displayed.
“I see that in this tragedy,” he said. “It was not Mayfield’s fault or anybody’s fault, but it is our role as pastors and believers to display the work of God in this tragedy.”
EDITOR’S NOTE — This story was written by Chip Hutcheson and originally published by Kentucky Today.