They were eating supper, preparing for VBS family night, when a couple dozen phones went off in unison. Moments later, the EF3 tornado roared past, three blocks from Key Heights Baptist Church, headed for the heart of Perryton, Texas.
This was June 15. Life in the small town in the northern tip of the Texas Panhandle was suddenly plunged into chaos.
Three people died and more than 75 were injured as a result of the storm, which destroyed more than 200 homes and many businesses in the community of 8,500. Practically as soon as the tornado had passed, Key Heights and other churches responded – and have not stopped.
“It’s been a whirlwind,” said Duce Cooper, pastor of Key Heights – and then he caught himself and chuckled. “That’s probably bad terminology.”
But it’s as fitting as anything to describe the constant swarm of activity emanating from Key Heights Baptist, First Baptist Church of Perryton, and so many other churches of all denominations, since the storm.
The response has been similar 180 miles south at First Baptist, in the smaller community of Matador, where another EF3 tornado struck six days later, resulting in four deaths, at least 15 injuries and extensive damage to homes and businesses on the western edge of the town of approximately 600.
“I’m overwhelmed and wore out,” said Eddy Helms, pastor of First Baptist Matador. “But I’m overjoyed with the love of the Lord.”
Texas Baptists have responded in both communities. Several churches have become staging centers for Texas Baptist Men and other disaster relief agencies. Their church parking lots are filled with shower trailers and tents where volunteers cook and serve free meals. Key Heights’ Sunday School classrooms have been converted into temporary clothes closets, sorted and separated by gender and sizes. The churches are dispensing toiletries, over-the-counter medications, bug spray – whatever is needed, and all in order to serve residents who are still sorting through rubble.
“It’s not just us, but other churches,” said Richard Lafferty, pastor of First Baptist in Perryton. “We’ve become a food service institution and food distributors. We’ve become donation centers. We’ve become a coordination center. We’ve become a day care facility. We’ve also transitioned to a cleanup service. Not our church alone but all of our churches, as a community.”
Each day, it seems there’s something new.
“Somebody told me when it started, ‘Duce, you know how you eat an elephant, right? One bite at a time.’ Our goal from the onset has been, we certainly want to help with clothing and everything else – but we’d been talking for a year now how we can be the hands of feet of Christ in our community. We just want to share the gospel. We want to be Christlike. We want to be helpful,” Cooper said.
“We’re doing spiritual care, trying to find the needs of individuals, just praying with them,” he said. “Sharing the gospel with them and giving them hope.”
They’ve also continued their worship services. In the Sunday service June 18, three days after the storm, Cooper prayed: “Lord, our hearts are broken, but our spirit is not. Help us to not lose sight of you, to just be Christlike in everything we do.”
And they sang a Chris Tomlin worship song with these lyrics: “And though the storms may come, I am holding on, to the rock I cling. How can I keep from singing your praise? …”
A week later, Helms began the service at First Baptist Matador by saying, “God is good all the time – and all the time, God is good.”
Helms is amazed by and grateful for the response of several churches in nearby communities to help after the tornado hit Matador June 21. First Baptist Quitaque sent a team the morning after the storm, with skid-steers and dump trailers, to help clear debris. First Baptist Paducah sent a team, as well. One couple from First Baptist Paducah cooked meals all day long, transitioning from breakfast to lunch to dinner.
“We’ve had group after group coming in to help,” Helms said. “We’ve sent them out. There’s stuff just scattered, debris – would you go out and make big piles? … I can’t tell you how many people have come by and prayed with us and left some supplies.
“It’s why I’m telling you I’m still overjoyed with the joy of the Lord. There’s just been an outpouring of love.”
In both communities, the recognition has set in that recovery will come in phases and won’t be quick or easy.
“What we need is muscles and money,” Helms said. “It’s going to be quite a process to rebuild.”
While the pastors are grateful for the tangible items donated, they’ve got enough of most things – so much, in fact, members of First Baptist Matador were packing baby items to give to a crisis pregnancy center in Plainview.
“As much as we’ve been blessed,” Helms said, “we want to use it to bless others.”
Funds have been established in both communities and their churches, for those who’d like to help. It’s likely the best way, as the communities begin to figure out how to help people who lost homes rebuild and to help with needs that go unnoticed in the first few days. As an example, Cooper said he’s begun to see how many otherwise undamaged (or barely damaged) vehicles have flat tires because of wood and metal projectiles fired during the storm; many, he said, will need to purchase new tires.
In Perryton, residents of the self-described “wheatheart” of the nation believe they live in a beautiful area, with “the most wonderful people,” according to Cooper.
“They’re proud, hard-working people, and they just want to dig out of this and put things back together as they once were,” he said.
Lafferty said Perryton is “kind of in a transitional point of less reliance on outside sources and more within our communities.”
And although each pastor said he has been encouraged by the response and strength shown by both churchgoers and the entire communities, the last few days of nonstop activity have left the pastors – and their churchgoers and entire communities – “tired,” said Lafferty. He added: “That’s probably the one word that seems to sum it all up.”
Above all, they ask Texas Baptists to continue to lift them in prayer.
“Please remember to pray as we continue to put things back together,” Helms said. “We just praise God for His watch, care and love over us. Without Him, we would be in a mess.”
Learn more about ongoing recovery efforts, including ways to help, at Key Heights Baptist Church, First Baptist Church Perryton and First Baptist Church Matador. When churches give to the Texas Baptists Cooperative Program, a portion of those funds go to support Texas Baptist Men in their mission to bring hope and healing to communities impacted by disaster. TBMF’s Church Disaster Relief Fund also supports churches facing challenges as a result of disaster, enabling them to meet the needs of their communities and continue to share the love of Christ.
Texas Baptists is a movement of God’s people to share Christ and show love by strengthening churches and ministers, engaging culture and connecting the nations to Jesus.
The ministry of the convention is made possible by giving through the Texas Baptists Cooperative Program, Mary Hill Davis Offering® for Texas Missions, Texas Baptists Worldwide and Texas Baptist Missions Foundation. Thank you for your faithful and generous support.
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