Perryton church celebrates 23 salvations after serving community devastated by tornado

by Teresa Young on February 14, 2024 in News

Duce Cooper, pastor of Key Heights Baptist Church in Perryton, TX, wants to make one thing very clear: the cleanup and recovery in the city of Perryton is not the work of his church. It’s a movement of God.

“I think we did what we were supposed to do, nothing spectacular, but what I think Jesus would have done. I have spoken to pastors and told them ministry is dirty. If you’re doing it right, it’s dirty. We experienced it first-hand doing this,” said Cooper, who has pastored the Perryton congregation since August 2018.

“You hug people who are dirty, scraped up, teeth knocked out and you just hug them. They need to know they are loved.”

Seven months after a tornado screamed through the panhandle city of about 8,000, what has been accomplished in the way of recovery is a perfect example of the church becoming the hands and feet of Jesus in the most critical time.

The storm hits

Cooper was nearly five years into his pastorate at Key Heights when the community was turned upside down. It was June 15, and the church was holding family night for Vacation Bible School, serving families a light dinner before the services started. He heard a few cell phones pinging to indicate alerts and really thought nothing of it. When it began happening more and more, church leaders moved everyone into a central hallway to wait out the storm.

“A member went outside to film and saw the clouds and swirling a block over, moving through town. When the wind really hit next to our church, I realized it was a tornado for sure. We had no warning sirens,” recalled Cooper. “It started in a trailer park and wiped it out, came a block from the church and then veered off down Main Street, wiping that out and heading southeast, hitting the poorest people in our community. The people who had nothing lost everything.”

After 12 minutes, leaders saw the funnel cloud lift, and they proceeded to evacuate the church, sending everyone westward. Staying at the church, Cooper was soon met by members informing him that one’s mother had perished in the tornado. The group prayed and cried together, then set out to survey the damage on Main Street, heading first to a member’s business. He began pushing merchandise back into the store and others joined in.

Soon, front-end loaders arrived to help clear debris, making Main Street drivable within 24 hours. Community members turned out to board up windows and begin the process of cleanup and recovery after the storm left three dead and at least 100 injured, damaged nearly 100 businesses and destroyed nearly 500 homes completely. Still, Cooper said the loss of life was lessened since most Perryton residents were still at work when the storm hit just after 5 p.m.

“It was a devastating event, and if that tornado had come 15-30 minutes later, there is no telling the loss of life we would have seen,” he said.

Being the hands and feet of Christ

Cooper’s daughter, Whitney Lynch, saw the destruction and immediately knew the church had to help. She and Cooper’s wife, Glena, jumped in with both feet to organize the efforts. The city’s crisis center was destroyed, so the church opened up their back entrance and created a storage space for baby supplies and clothing of all sizes. Food trucks and a shower unit were moved in to aid those displaced from their homes and many city residents who were without electricity, water or gas.

Volunteers began to pour in from the area to help sort clothing, stock supply shelves and clean up around the city. With displaced residents taking up any available hotel rooms or rental homes, the church created spaces to house those who were serving.

Members of the Top O’ Texas Baptist Association and director James Greer showed up with trucks and clean-out wagons, and Texas Baptist Men sent groups to assist. Seemingly overnight, Key Heights was transformed into a disaster relief center.

“We canceled all Sunday school and Wednesday activities and just met (for church) Sunday morning. We decided we were going to be a resource center for our community. Other churches were helping too, but since we were geographically in the middle of the destruction, people could walk to where we were and get food, clothing, bedding and supplies,” said Cooper. “We canceled all the events we normally do in the summer as a church because we knew this was what we needed to be doing.”

Lynch set up an Amazon wish list for needed items and shared it across her Facebook page. With her connections as a former missionary, people from all over the world sent aid to Perryton. The church remained in emergency recovery mode until the middle of September, turning over the remaining supplies to the crisis center once they found a new location.

But Key Heights still looks different. The church welcomed two Spanish-speaking congregations from the city into their space since the homes in which they were meeting were destroyed. They alternate evening meeting times to accommodate. Key Heights is also waiting on insurance issues to completely repair the damage their building sustained, with the high winds and hail rippling the metal roof and filling the sanctuary with water.

The generosity of others

One of the many miracles Cooper has experienced has been the generosity of others. After 27 years in ministry, his connections run deep, and they came through in a big way when he requested donations. Other churches showed up with monetary gifts as well, including a tiny country church that held special events to raise money and a church from Hobbs, N.M., that sent the single largest donation to the cause.

“People would drive up and give us money, so we set up a disaster fund and a hundred percent of it goes to those people who need the help, not our church,” Cooper explained, adding that they tried to keep a low profile throughout the effort. “We did not want them to tell people it was from our church. This wasn’t about our church. We did no advertising, didn’t talk about it and we wouldn’t do news interviews.”

To date, that fund has also provided electrical poles for homes, repaired roofs and windows to make damaged homes livable again, and even provided down payments for homes or trailers to get families back to normal. Cooper said they also plan to continue helping individuals impacted by the storm until the fund is depleted.

A community ‘ready to hear’ the gospel

“God used all these people that knew no one here. All the devastation, but God’s hand is in it. He’s using people from all over and throughout our association. They helped with blood, sweat and tears, and with donations,” he said. “I wish I could bottle up the people coming together and sprinkle it all over the place.”

Cooper said seeing the kingdom impact following the tornado is exciting, and he said that simply comes from being prepared.

“We were regular people wearing regular clothes helping clean up. In the process of that, we got to share the gospel, and they were ready to hear it. That’s what this is about. We want to help people and be like Jesus and for nothing in return,” he said, noting at least 23 salvations have occurred so far. “For a year before this happened, I kept asking God why he was having me preach on being the hands and feet of Christ. And this is why.”

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