Bob Gilliland, pastor of Deer Creek Baptist Church got a telephone call on the evening of March 24 from his son Roger who told him to turn on the weather report, that a tornado was approaching the church’s parsonage where they lived in Rolling Fork.
“We turned on the weather and they were showing pictures of the tornado and said it was heading towards us. I stood in the hall. The tornado came through and shook the house but neither one of us got a scratch,” he said, also referring to wife Betty who rode out the deadly storm in a bathtub in the parsonage.
“It blew out every window, a tree came down on the power system out back, ripped it off the wall,” Gilliland said. “It’s reparable, but it’s going to be expensive.”
The Gillilands survived the tornado system that killed at least 21 people and injured dozens more in three states, with nearly all the deaths occurring in Rolling Fork, a town of about 1,800 people. Economically, it’s one of the poorest communities in the state.
The National Weather Service reported tornadoes struck a path more than 100 miles long through Rolling Fork in Issaquena County, Silver City in Humphreys County, Tchula in Holmes County, Winona in Montgomery County and Amory and Smithville in Monroe County.
The storm destroyed or damaged at least 2,000 homes in Mississippi. Additional damage was reported in Georgia and Alabama, including one death in Alabama.
Mississippi Baptist Disaster Relief has set up command centers in Rolling Fork, Winona and Amory, said Hubert Yates, MBDR director. He anticipates responses ranging from one to two months, including chainsaw, debris removal and counseling.
Feeding units are providing meals for volunteers and victims. Arkansas Baptist Disaster Relief is assisting in Rolling Fork, and about 15 other state Baptist Disaster Relief units have notified Yates of their availability.
‘Hand of God’
“It’s amazing and it’s a blessing that we don’t have hundreds and hundreds of fatalities,” he said. “How we didn’t have hundreds — if not 1,000 — is just the hand of God.”
Both Deer Creek Church and First Baptist, Rolling Fork suffered damage ranging from a toppled steeple, roof and water damage at First Baptist, to the damage to the parsonage at Deer Creek.
“There’s over 13 families just in my church that had their homes totally destroyed,” Williamson said. “Our community, the vast majority of it is totally destroyed. Most of our businesses in our small town were totally destroyed, but our people are very resilient.
“We’re used to being able to spring into action to help people. The thing is a lot of my people who are the first [to help], they’re the ones that have their homes destroyed and so they’re in need of a lot of help,” Williamson said.
The tornado was the second that the Gillilands survived in the past few months, having also ridden out a December 2022 tornado that struck Anguilla, a community six miles northeast of Rolling Fork in neighboring Sharkey County.
“I’ve been through two tornadoes in the last four months. The first one totally destroyed the house I was in, and my wife and I walked away without a scratch,” Gilliland said, “and then Friday night the parsonage got ramshackled, and we both walked away from that without a scratch.”
Deer Creek Church also lost all of its roof shingles. A tree fell on the back of the church and also destroyed the power system there. The sanctuary suffered roof damage.
First Baptist held Sunday worship service onsite March 26, ministering to many members of the community.
“The main thing I said is the church steeple may be in the road in front of our church, and your home may be destroyed, and tornadoes or different things in life can take away things from you in a moment’s notice, but there is nothing that can separate you from Jesus,” Williamson said.
“I used Psalm 23, that Jesus doesn’t look down on us in the valley and just leave us there [and] forsake us, but the Bible says He walks with us through that valley and we’re definitely in the valley of the shadow of death, but He’s with us.”
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.
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