When tornadoes struck Alabama on April 27, 2011 people all across the state lost homes, family members and security. The event was unlike any other in recent history and according to local religious leaders, led many people to a new relationship with faith.
Garrett LeClere, a young child from Phil Campbell, lost his mother and father when an EF 5 twister blasted apart their home. The five-year-old survived but with broken bones and bruises. Days later, as Jeff McCormick, Garrett’s mother’s ex-husband, began to tell Garrett about his parents’ deaths, the boy made a startling confession – Jesus had already told him.
Garrett’s story is just one of countless religious experiences on April 27, 2011 – experiences that changed how Tennessee Valley residents relate to faith.
Wayne Benson, a pastor at Huntsville’s The Rock church, worked as a volunteer immediately after the tornadoes rolled through. As he counseled the grieving, he saw a mix of tears and frustration and found some questioning how a higher power could have allowed such suffering.
“Some people who had no faith in God were really angry at God, felt like God had done this to them,” Benson recalled.
The question of why some died and others lived was particularly hard to answer but Benson turned to scripture, “It rains on the just on the unjust, that’s what the Bible says.”
While the tragedy shook the faith of some, it brought spiritual awakenings for others. Benson remembers praying for a man who had lost everything, “He said to me, ‘You know, no one’s ever prayed for me before.'”
“It was an introduction of faith in his life,” Benson said, “There’s a lot of stories like that.”
Church efforts also connected people to faith in a very tangible way after the storm. Volunteers came out in force to help with disaster relief. Food, clothes and money poured into hard-hit areas. People of all faiths organized to provide help to those who needed it.
“People were so generous during this whole time,” Harvest Baptist Church Pastor Eric Fuller explained, “We were just the avenue that that came through.”
Fuller said he saw the majority of his congregation become more spiritual than ever in the wake of the storms and that those visible good works had a lot to do with it. Religious leaders from other communities report seeing the same trend.
Pastor Benson said it’s easy to explain why people who have lived through a tragedy like April 27th would be pulled closer to faith, “When we have something like that in our life, we need something bigger than ourself.”