Britt Williamson was already sleep deprived when a tornado ripped through Rolling Fork, Mississippi March 24.
Williamson was in a Jackson hospital with his wife, Jamie, who had suffered two strokes the week before. She had finally moved out of ICU and he had drifted to sleep on the couch in her room, when he awoke to her screaming at the news of the EF4 tornado that devastated their town and resulted in multiple fatalities statewide.
“This is total destruction,” Williamson said of the damage in the town of 3,000 where he has pastored First Baptist Church for nearly 12 years. “The line starts a hundred yards south of my house and it’s just…everything’s wiped out.”
The Williamsons spent several hours not knowing whether their home was still standing. It is, with light damage compared to many families in their church and community. The church building also sustained damage — missing shingles and busted stained glass in the old sanctuary built in 1926.
The fact that it wasn’t totally destroyed means the church building can serve as a base for Southern Baptist Disaster Relief operations.
Teams from Mississippi and Arkansas are there now with incident, assessment and chaplain teams as well as lots of chainsaw work, cleanup and tarping being done.
The church is likely the only place in town with power, Williamson said, adding that nearly every business in Rolling Fork — except a grocery store — was destroyed. Williamson and others are assessing if and when to provide meals to the community.
“This is not something that’s going to be fixed in a week or a month,” the pastor said. Disaster Relief leaders told him debris removal could take two months, and that process has to be completed before rebuilding can start.
“This is going to be a long process. We’re going to have to help people get reestablished,” Williamson said. “They’re going to have to start all over.”
‘By the grace of God’
The day after the tornado, Saturday (March 25), was a day of total shock, Williamson said. People searched through the rubble in Rolling Fork, trying to find photographs, trying to find anything that was theirs.
On Sunday morning, his church met for worship.
“We just thought it was important to open the doors for the community to come in and praise God,” he said.
“Because we have a lot to praise Jesus for,” he added. “How our church doesn’t have hundreds of fatalities, how our community doesn’t have hundreds and hundreds of fatalities, is simply by the grace of God.”
Hubert Yates, director of Mississippi Baptist Disaster Relief (MBDR), was at the worship service where Williamson “preached a message straight from his heart,” Yates said. “It was a great service. I was really amazed as the service unfolded.”
Videos from the service are posted on MBDR’s Facebook page. In the short clips, worshippers sing old hymns, “It Is Well With My Soul” and “He Hideth My Soul,” and a newer song about God’s rescue, Hillsong UNITED’s “Oceans.”
“It was packed out,” Williamson said of the service. Many regular attenders couldn’t get to the church through the rubble or because their cars were damaged in the storm. Those who could travel parked two or three blocks from the church and walked the rest of the way.
Williamson said 13 families in his church experienced total destruction of their homes, and that doesn’t include those whose houses saw lesser damage. One deacon and his wife lost their home and tire business, and are still waiting to assess damage at rental properties they own.
“You know where he was Sunday morning?” Williamson asked. “He was at church.”
Hope is what motivated church leaders to open the doors Sunday morning, he noted. “People right now need hope, and our only hope comes through Jesus.”
‘Jesus is still on the throne’
As his church and community gear up for a long rebuilding process, Williamson said two major needs are manpower and monetary donations. He is updating the church’s Facebook page with needs in Rolling Fork and resources for residents. Williamson is also collecting donations and pre-paid gift cards to meet basic needs.
“Don’t forget this one: they need to pray for us,” Williamson said as he finished his list of priorities.
“I’ve heard from pastors and churches all across the country, people all across the country,” he noted. “It’s just been overwhelming to see the support that we’re getting.
He asked for prayer for his wife, that she would continue to heal and that God would comfort her heart while she’s not able to be with others in their time of need. Jamie is recuperating with family three hours away from Rolling Fork, meaning Williamson is keeping long hours traveling between two locations.
“Pray for our people, that we will have strength and wisdom, because a lot of us are running on two hours sleep a day,” he said. He asked for prayer that they’ll use this platform not only to meet physical needs, but to show the eternal hope of Jesus to people who don’t know Him.
During the tornado, First Baptist Church’s steeple was ripped off its roof, landing in the middle of Second Street. “I told our church, ‘Our steeple may be on the ground, but our Jesus is still on the throne,’” he said.
“We’re trying to love on people but at the same time, point them back to Jesus.”
Ways to help
For more information on how you can help, click here. Or, check with your church, association or state Baptist convention to find out how they are contributing to ongoing relief efforts in your state and beyond. To contact your state convention to find out how to assist with Southern Baptist Disaster Relief efforts, click here. Or, for more information about Send Relief, click here.