(Photo: Reuters / Marvin Gentry)
With 5,000 homes and businesses destroyed in the Tuscaloosa, Ala., area and more than 200 people dead, with others still missing, Christians and non-Christians in the area are struggling through big questions.
First Wesleyan Church in Tuscaloosa, a church of 600 members, went untouched by the tornado that ravaged the city last Wednesday. As they met for worship on Sunday, one of the big questions their community life pastor Scott Moore said they wrestled with is, “How do you talk about God in this? Because to some people this is evidence that God is not real – that He doesn’t care about his people.”
“But I go to Scripture in Psalm 145 where it says God is slow to anger, but is quick to show compassion,” Moore told The Christian Post. “This is not God’s vengeance on us. Scripture says God grieves when we grieve. It says that when Lazarus died, Jesus wept. So I look at this and say, ‘God, where are you going to show up?’ and so many times I remember that Penske truck.”
The Penske truck arrived at First Wesleyan from Mobile, Ala., not long after a woman there heard the church’s plan to be a hub for relief work in the Tuscaloosa area and subsequent plea for supplies. She organized a group of people who went to Wal-Mart and filled the truck with supplies.
The truck was just the beginning of God’s provision.
“Wednesday night, after the tornado, I went downtown just to get a feel,” Moore said. “It was dark. There were no lights, no power anywhere. I took a flashlight and started walking around to see the destruction.
“We came to church the next morning and said, ‘What are we going to do?’ Three of us sat down and came up with the plan. We put information up on the website (http://www.firstwesleyan.com/) and then started getting volunteers.”
Using social media to get the word out, 300 volunteers showed up to organize the donated toiletries, granola bars, crackers, water and juice. They placed them into bags, piled trucks full of the supplies and drove through communities looking for people in need, handing out 10,000 to 12,000 bags in the first three days.
Fox 23 in Tuscaloosa shot a video of the volunteers in action.
“Toiletries?” First Wesleyan Church member Rita Cohron asks a woman sorting through the rubble.
“Yeah,” the woman says.
“Hold on Mike!” Cohron says to the driver. “They need toiletries.” They stop and hand her two bags full of supplies.
A woman in a wheelchair named Geneva Oxedine, whose home was not destroyed, tells one of the volunteers, “I just feel so bad when I see what has happened everywhere else.” One of the relief workers hugs her.
It’s a scene that has been played out over and over again.
In addition to meeting physical needs, First Wesleyan told members to pray with people as well.
“It gives them hope that God has not forgotten them, that God has not given up on them, that they will be restored and that his mercies are new every day,” Moore said.
“In the South we know there are racial divides, but there are white churches and black churches and Hispanic churches coming together and it’s a beautiful thing,”
Such heartfelt compassion for people who were once strangers continues to spur people to donate supplies and money to the relief effort. The city now has seven distribution centers and the general population knows about them, so First Wesleyan has transitioned from the streets to a more concentrated effort to supply distribution centers with as many goods as possible.
“When the Penske truck arrived from Mobile full of supplies from front to back, top to bottom, it created momentum,” Moore said. “Now we’re getting stuff from all over the state. And it’s coming in from South Carolina, New York, Florida, Oklahoma and Georgia.”
Shipping items can be expensive, so Moore is telling people to consider sending Wal-Mart and Target gift cards, or checks or donating via PayPal.
“When we get that money, we just go out and start buying stuff,” Moore said.
In addition to helping to supply distribution centers, First Wesleyan has opened their doors to first responders because the shelters and hotels are full. They are currently hosting 120 FEMA workers, Alabama Power workers and police officers in the church. They are cooking meals for them, and providing bedding and showers.
First Wesleyan is just one instance of God at work in the Tuscaloosa area. When Moore thought about the enormity of what God is doing there, he spoke in a worshipful tone.
“All over this city, things are just happening,” Moore said. “Things are just happening in the time they need to and every church has found their niche. I have to think that the Spirit is moving and giving wisdom and direction.”