For 50 years, the sanctuary of Westminster Presbyterian Church has been a place of refuge for those seeking to hear the Word of God and come to know Jesus Christ. It has been a haven for many.
In less than 30 seconds on a Sunday evening, the sanctuary that has stood for more than five decades was battered and beaten by a powerful EF3 tornado packing winds of 145 mph that ripped through the south-central Mississippi town of Hattiesburg.
Left along the tornado’s path were downed trees, power lines, flipped and smashed cars, and heavily damaged homes and buildings. Not even Westminster Presbyterian Church, founded in 1954, was spared the tornado’s wrath when it ripped through a swath of Hattiesburg on Feb. 10.
Now, the leaders and members of the church are trying to pick up the pieces and move on with their mission to share God’s Word.
Westminster Pastor Steve Ramp said the tornado that chewed its way through Hattiesburg caused damage that probably will reach into millions of dollars for the church, ripping the roof off the sanctuary, blowing out windows and leaving gaping holes in the walls of the structure. Three other buildings on the grounds – including one that housed the offices of the Mississippi Presbytery – also were destroyed by the storm’s ferocity.
No one was at the church when the tornado churned its way through the town. Ramp said there had been an afternoon concert of sacred music at 3 p.m. Most people left the church by 4:30 p.m., and others were supposed to be back at 6 p.m. for children’s activities. The tornado struck around 5:20 p.m. (CST).
“Between those times, the freight train rolled through and just tore things up in the community,” he said. “We don’t have a complete assessment, but it’s looking like there’s millions of dollars of damage. Under the best of circumstances it may be a year before we are back in business at this location.”
Ramp said the building, constructed in 1963, was built with structural steel and reinforced concrete. Church members are hopeful a team of engineers can determine if the facility is still structurally sound enough for repairs to be made. If not, it may have to be demolished.
“We’re hopeful (engineers) will say it can be repaired, but we’ll just have to wait and see,” he said.
In the meantime, members of Westminster have been doing what they can in terms of cleanup efforts and attempts to salvage items from their facility. They’ve not been alone in their efforts.
“Along with our members, we’ve had 100 volunteers from the EPC (Evangelical Presbyterian Church), and Presbyterian Church (USA) come to our aid, and we’ve had Baptist and Methodist denominations offer space for services,” Ramp said. “So many churches have reached out to us. They have said, ‘We’re the body of Christ, and we want to help you.’
“These denomination lines we’ve drawn and lived with … when the chips are down and people need help, these (lines) really don’t matter. We were in trouble, and these people have rallied to our aid.”
Ramp indicated that the Westminster congregation, comprised of about 210 members, will be meeting at Parkway Heights United Methodist Church for Sunday morning worship services and Wednesday services. Parkway Heights, located a short distance from Westminster, was unscathed by the tornado, and Ramp said meeting so close to their own church may make members feel better emotionally.
Things looked bleak Monday morning (Feb. 11) when members and volunteers arrived in the rain and saw the full extent of the damage.
“We were so discouraged Monday morning,” Ramp said. “It was pouring rain, and all that rain and wind was coming through the holes in the roof and walls. Trees were lying against the sanctuary. It was discouraging to look at it, a bit overwhelming.
“But we’ve had a lot of lay leadership emerge. When people saw the carnage, they were moved by it. This place has been teeming with people. We’ve sawed and removed 30 trees, removed debris and made this look like a church again.”
On Tuesday, Feb. 12, after two days of cleanup efforts, members of Westminster gathered together on the church grounds. Joining hands as a united body, they prayed.
“People are encouraged and hopeful now,” Ramp said. “We can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
And members want to take that light to others in the community also devastated by the tornado. Ramp said the desire of the church’s membership is to secure its property and begin to focus on others who need assistance.
“A lot of people were not spared,” he said. “We plan to send people out into the community to provide assistance to others in need. A crisis like this really mobilizes Christian people wanting to help. We’ll be deploying people to homes to find out what the needs are for people affected by the tornado.”
Westminster also has established a relief fund at BancorpSouth in Hattiesburg. Ramp said money contributed to the relief fund will be used as needed by the church and also to address issues in the community that came about as a result of the tornado.
To contribute to the fund, make checks payable to Westminster Presbyterian Church Relief Fund and send them to BancorpSouth, Attn. Debbie Hudson, 124 Hardy St., Hattiesburg, MS 39401.