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Two Nashville churches, wrecked by tornadoes years apart, lean on each other in storms' wake

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Two Nashville churches, wrecked by tornadoes years apart, lean on each other in storms' wake
December 11, 2023

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — After a March 2020 tornado destroyed the Rev. Jacques Boyd’s Nashville church, his friend, the Rev. Vincent Johnson, lent him space to worship in. Nearly four years later, Boyd has offered to return the favor for the exact same reason.

“Whatever we have is available to them,” said Boyd, who leads Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, two days after a tornado ripped through Community Baptist Church. “We’re walking hand-in-hand with them as sister churches and as pastors being friends, being present with them however that presence looks.”

Although the tornado struck early Saturday evening, Community Baptist was full of people attending an appreciation banquet for Pastor Johnson and his wife Donella Johnson. In a video message to the congregation posted on the church’s Facebook page Sunday, Donella Johnson said several members needed emergency surgery. Their injuries included broken hips and femurs.

One of the people injured was George Presley, who suffered a head wound that left him with several staples. He returned to the ruins of the church on Monday and pointed out the Life Center building, where people had been preparing for the banquet.

“When the roof came off, all the water and stuff just started coming in,” he said. They took what little cover they could behind tables. Presley was next door in the church itself when the storm decimated that building as well. His wife was in the other building.

Asked how he got injured, Presley said, “I really don't know because when the storm came through it got so black. It just got dark. And all the lights went out. Everything got to shaking and stuff got to falling.”

Karen Higgins, whose family has belonged to Community Baptist Church for four generations, was waiting for the banquet to begin when alarms started going off on everyone's phones.

“I was sitting in a chair, but by the time everything was over, I was on the floor,” she said in a telephone interview. “I could feel that wind, I’m like, ‘Lord, please don’t let that wind take me away.' You couldn’t take cover if you wanted to take cover, that’s how swift it was. You could hear people praying.”

Once the storm passed, Higgins said she could hear injured people calling out, “‘I’m here. I’m here,’ or ‘Help me. Help me.’” The pastor and deacon were calling back, “‘Are you in there?’” she said. “They were picking up boards and stuff. They were getting us out.”

“Our church is a family church, a helping church. They will do anything to help anybody,” Higgins said.

Timothy Turner, who was catering the banquet, had just driven away from it to go pick up some more chicken when the twister whipped through. Several of his family members and his employees survived the direct hit from inside.

Looking at the destruction Monday, he said he couldn’t believe anyone made it out alive, let alone everyone.

“I think those were angels,” Turner said. “I don’t like to go with luck. I believe in blessings. That was a blessing.”

Dyshawn Gardner also stopped by on Monday to look at what remains of the church he has attended since he sang in the youth choir. Gardner started tearing up as he described learning about what had happened through his social media and calling his grandmother with the bad news.

“This has been my home,” Gardner said. “I can call my pastor anytime with any problem. He’s there, he’s open and he’s willing to help any day. That’s why it’s shocking when something like this happens.”

Between being a student at Tennessee State University and working two jobs, Gardner said he can’t always attend church in person, but when he can’t he watches a livestream of the service. He had planned to be at Community Baptist in person on Sunday.

Boyd, the preacher at Mount Bethel, said he knows the toll an event like this can take on a pastor, who is expected to be strong for the rest of the congregation.

“My one piece of advice I gave him was go and seek some therapy and some help and some assistance,” Boyd said. “It’s a traumatic experience. It’s trauma at its finest. We need him to be at his best so the community can continue to be at our best.”

Boyd said his and Johnson’s careers have followed similar paths: They both attended American Baptist College in Nashville, joined Omega Psi Phi fraternity, they pastor churches in the same city following the deaths of their predecessors — and now they’ve both had their churches wrecked by tornadoes.

“We talk daily,” he said. “We pray daily.”


Denise Lavoie contributed to this report from Richmond, Virginia.


Associated Press religion coverage receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content.


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