A devastating tornado that caused substantial damage to Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg, Miss., has not hampered the congregation’s ability to worship and serve the Lord.
Members of Westminster have been sharing facilities with the congregation of a local Methodist church for worship services while insurance adjustments and, ultimately, repairs to their sanctuary take place.
“We were offered an opportunity to worship at Parkway Heights Methodist Church, and we have been doing that for six weeks now,” Westminster Pastor Steve Ramp said. “That has worked out beautifully and has been very nice for all of us. We’ve had some joint services, gotten to know a lot of other people and made some new friends. It has been really meaningful.”
Ramp explained that Parkway has an 8:30 a.m. contemporary service on Sundays before leaving the sanctuary for Westminster to have its 9:30 a.m. service. Parkway’s members then have their 11 a.m. traditional service. On Wednesdays, the two churches share a meal together before splitting for their evening services.
“The hospitality factor from the Methodists has been so warm and inviting,” Ramp said. “We feel like we are partners, and it means a lot to them to be able to help us. They don’t just say that, they mean it, and our folks feel very comfortable with them.
“(Parkway members) have a beautiful, spacious facility and have been so cordial. It really has taken a lot of angst out of this situation for us.”
That angst was brought on by the tornado that ripped through Hattiesburg Feb. 10. The Westminster sanctuary that had stood for more than five decades was battered and beaten by the powerful EF3 tornado packing winds of 145 mph that ripped through the south-central Mississippi town around 5:20 p.m. (CST).
Left along the tornado’s path were downed trees, power lines, flipped and smashed cars, and heavily damaged homes and buildings. The twister 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.
While things are working well holding services at Parkway Heights, members of Westminster want to return to their own facility. That will take place, but it may be a while.
Ramp said there was good news regarding the damage to the Westminster property. Two different structural engineers examined the sanctuary and adjoining structures, and both determined that the structural integrity had not been compromised. Therefore, repairs rather than reconstruction are in order.
“We were told the structure had been deemed repairable,” Ramp said, noting that the foundations, sanctuary and first floor of the facility were in pretty good shape. “It will be a massive remodeling project, but it can be repaired.”
While there is damage throughout, the bulk of the work will take place on the second floor and roof areas.
Ramp said the steel rafters were twisted and tangled, the woodwork was ripped apart, all the windows were blown out, and the roof was blown off the structure during the tornado, leaving some gaping holes. All of that will have to be addressed, in addition to any other repairs.
Three buildings adjacent to the sanctuary were destroyed, and the church already has received payment in the amount of $400,000 for them from the insurance company. However, adjusters still are crunching the numbers for the sanctuary and adjoining wings of the church to determine the damage. Though no dollar amount has been given yet, Ramp anticipates the damage assessment will be substantial in light of the damage caused by the tornado.
He said a meeting has been held with church members to apprise them of the situation and what will take place.
“We’ve told them we are going to make the repairs and be stronger than ever,” Ramp said. “We’re hoping that within a month we’ll be ready to start repairs. It would be awesome if we could do that, but we don’t know. We’re probably looking at a year, maybe more, before we can move back in. That’s still an unknown right now.”
In the meantime, Westminster members can cling to the fact that there is a light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a faint one right now. It will come into clearer view and get brighter as the process goes along.
“It’s been really heartwarming to see all support we’ve been given,” Ramp said. “We’ve gotten so much response from churches here and across the country. The EPC, PCA, PCUSA, Methodists, Baptists – it’s just been outstanding to see so many help with their contributions and work at the church.”
Ramp said he attended a Rotary meeting not long ago and was handed a check for $1,000 to assist with the repairs. A church in Tuscaloosa, Ala., suffered a similar situation at Easter two years ago. Because of that common experience, the Tuscaloosa congregation sent $5,000 to aid the relief effort.
Plenty of cards and letters of encouragement have been passed along with the financial support.
“It really does say that denominational lines and issues that exist mean very little when things like this happen,” Ramp said. “When it comes right down to it we see people in great need and our hearts go out to them, very generously and very willingly. We’re all in this together, and that’s how it should be. The world is watching, and this makes a strong statement for the very Body of Christ to operate in a unified way. It’s very encouraging to see that.”
The relief fund for Westminster Presbyterian Church has been established at BancorpSouth in Hattiesburg, and more than $90,000 has been contributed to assist with expenses related to the damage caused by the tornado.
“Our local bank, BancorpSouth, has been very helpful handling a Relief Fund for us,” Ramp said. “They log in receipts and send us the information so we can include them in our records, and the Presbyterian Women can write personal thank you notes. It makes us feel valued, loved and hopeful.”
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.