By ALEXA MILAN
SANFORD — Instead of going on an Easter egg hunt or having a traditional family meal following a church service, some Lee County families will spend their Easter Sunday sifting through the remnants of damaged homes, trying to fathom how exactly they will be able to move on from the devastating tornado that ripped through North Carolina April 16.
In a matter of minutes, the face of Lee County changed drastically last week. Two lives were lost. At least 116 homes and businesses were completely destroyed. A total of 457 structures have been damaged. But rather than question why God would let this happen, much of the community is looking toward the healing power of faith.
Shana Greer’s house on Saint Joseph St. was destroyed. The windows are boarded shut. Tarp is spread across the top where the roof once was. The front has been branded with a spray-painted red X. But through the days of sifting through the rubble, Greer is just thankful to be alive.
“I don’t know how people get through something like this without faith,” Greer said. “God has just blessed us with a lot of friends that are willing to help. To me, it’s a testimony we need to pay it forward.”
Since April 16, the faith community’s presence has been strong in Lee County. Christian relief organization Samaritan’s Purse was stationed at New Life Praise Church on Wicker Street for a few days. Volunteer organization Matt 6, named for Chapter 6 of the Gospel of Matthew, has acquired nearly 3,000 supporters on Facebook in a week. It seems virtually every church in the area has sent volunteers into disaster zones or collected donations.
Members of the faith community were even some of the first responders on the scene after the tornado hit. First Baptist Church rounded up volunteers to go to the St. Andrews neighborhood with the Red Cross and distribute food and water. Cindy Hall of First Baptist Church said none of the residents said no when asked if they would like someone to pray with them.
“Mainly that first night, we just gave out lots and lots of hugs,” Hall said. “The feeling I got was that everyone was more concerned about everybody else. Everyone is just praising God that only two lives were taken, because with all the destruction, there could have been so many more.”
Dale Shackelford, chaplain in the pastoral care department of The Family Doc Diagnostic and Wellness Center, said in his experience, it is important for victims of trauma to feel they are not alone, especially if depression and anxiety have set in. He said people need to understand that while recovering from the tragedy they have experienced will take time, it is not the end.
“Along with any crisis that you go through, whether it’s a natural disaster or a health crisis, there is always a sense of loss and grief,” Shackelford said. “Faith and prayer give you the hope that you can’t find in anything else.”
Members of every faith community have been working tirelessly this week to ensure tornado victims know they have people supporting them. Though she’s not a member of Poplar Springs Church, when Heather Garner knocked on the door to ask if she could use the facility to start a soup kitchen for tornado victims, volunteers and disaster relief workers, Garner said the church welcomed her with open arms.
Since then, the soup kitchen has exploded into a 24/7 operation serving the entire county, and the church is overflowing with clothes, food, toiletries, blankets and other supplies. People who didn’t know each other’s names before the storm have banded together to start rebuilding Lee County.
“This is not our work — this is God’s work,” Poplar Springs Church Soup Kitchen volunteer Donna Beasley said. “It’s God bringing people together.”
Faith communities from outside Lee County have flocked to the area to offer their support as well. St. Luke Methodist Church is serving as a hub for Methodist volunteers from across the state and beyond. District Coordinator Suzanne Cobb said volunteers are coming from as far as Florida, Kentucky and Michigan, and she received a phone call from a group of Methodists in Russia sending their prayers to Lee County.
“The thing that’s been so amazing to me is this is a community-driven town, and across the board they’re doing what needs to be done,” Cobb said. “We’re witnessing what it means for the community to come together.”
Volunteers have spent the past week combing through the hardest-hit areas, cleaning up debris and cutting up branches and uprooted trees. Jonesboro Heights Baptist Church is hosting more than 400 members of the North Carolina Baptist Men, most of whom are from other counties. Many are no stranger to helping communities recover from tragedy, having traveled to places like Honduras and Mississippi for disaster relief work.
“Faith is why we’re here,” said Richard Sinclair, a Baptist Men volunteer from Rockingham. “God blessed us so richly. He said love thy neighbor, and your neighbor isn’t just next door.”
It will take months for Lee County to feel normal again. For some, it might take longer. But as relief efforts continue, Hall said she hoped the tornado victims could find some comfort in the unified support of the community.
“We’ve seen the community come together,” Hall said. “No one cares if you’re Baptist or Methodist or what color your skin is. Everybody’s working together. I think that’s how God wants us to be.”