It took less than 10 minutes for a series of E-4 tornadoes with 190 mph winds to devastate Mayfield, Dawson Springs, and other small towns in Western Kentucky on Friday, December 10.
Recovery, however, will take years.
Seventy-seven people died that night, including 12 children. Some 1,000 homes were leveled as if entire blocks had been cut down by a giant chain saw. Seventy-five percent of Dawson Springs no longer exists, and there are pockets of loss in rural areas throughout 10 counties.
Devastating need demanded immediate response. Southeast Christian Church gave $50,000 to first responders already in the worst-hit areas. Longtime partner Convoy of Hope offered vital supplies while Mercy Chefs provided 3,000 hot meals a day.
A few days after the storm—with homes replaced by piles of rubble and the area still without electricity—teams from Southeast met with local pastors to ask what they needed. Their list included flashlights, canned goods, personal care items, and new socks and underwear in every size. After all, the tornado hit so fast around 10:00 p.m., after most had settled in for the evening, that no one had time to pack critical belongings.
Associate Pastor Matt Reagan and Missions Ministry Leader Charlie Vittitow took teams to Mayfield and Dawson Springs to pray, meet with pastors, and assess needs while campus pastors called churches they know in affected communities.
On a phone call to an aunt and uncle in Bremen, Crestwood Campus Pastor Greg Allen learned that their church, Bethlehem Missionary Baptist, was nearly destroyed by the tornado. Allen connected with Pastor T.J. Milam a few minutes later. The pastor’s home was destroyed, but his wife and three children survived in their basement. Many people sheltered in the church basement during the storm.
When it was over, everyone saw unspeakable devastation and heard moans from people trapped in the rubble. Before heading out to help, T.J. gathered everyone together and quoted Job 1:21 (ESV): “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord.”
“To be honest, I’m not sure my mind and heart would have that focus after what happened,” Greg, a pastor for 39 years, said. “They thanked God as they prayed.”
In the early weeks after the storms, needs changed daily. One day, churches needed generators. The next, they needed electric blankets and heaters. When pastors asked for Christmas gifts for children, LifeBridge Manager Lisa Reynolds asked Southeast to respond by leading a needs drive on social media. More than $378,000 worth of toys was donated within four days.
Northside Baptist Church is just two blocks from the worst devastation in Mayfield. The church’s motto is “Move Toward the Mess.” The gym quickly became a hub for families needing clothing, flashlights, paper towels, food, and more.
“The first couple of days, lots of supplies (were) coming from all over—Southeast and others have been so great to send stuff—but we know in the days to come there’s going to be an even greater need, that we’re going to be able to help meet that need—share the love of Christ,” Pastor Al Chandler said.
He added that prayers for the church haven’t gone unnoticed.
“We know it, we feel it, and we need it,” he said.
In the church parking lot, Southeast member Jonathan Gray set up a mobile kitchen to cook hot meals with volunteers from his Man Challenge group.
“We fed about 800 people in the first two days,” he said. “We’re called to love people. I don’t have words for what happened here. I’m where I need to be, doing exactly what I’m supposed to be doing. It’s amazing.”
The emphasis now shifts to long-term needs. Different Southeast campuses are partnering with small towns to encourage, give to rebuilding efforts, and go help in person when the time is right. The Crestwood Campus is adopting Bremen, and members already chipped in after learning that Pastor Milam’s car was destroyed in the storm.
“We are speechless by your love and concern for us,” he said. “Thank you seems too small to say, but truly thank you from the bottom of our hearts…We’re overcome with God’s love running to us through Southeast.”
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In John 15, Jesus says, “I am the vine.” That’s singular, but then He says, “You are the branches.” That’s plural. We grow deeper with Jesus when we grow together, and we go further on mission when we go together. We are made for each other, and no matter the distance or cost, as believers we live committed to one another because we are connected by the same Vine.
Connecting to the Vine is something we do together. We connect to the Vine and we help connect each other to the Vine. Sometimes that looks like meeting short-term needs so that others are overcome with the love of God. Other times it looks like committing to meeting long-term needs to help others experience the consistent love of God. But in every case, branches that are connected to the Vine move toward the mess, no matter how long restoration may take.