“Well, this is going to be interesting, folks.”
Tim Dodgen stood in a T-shirt and blue jeans, talking to the congregation of Fultondale First Baptist Church on Sunday morning as they gathered to remember the tornado that struck the church and the city a year ago.
“I was part of this storm a year ago, and its amazing how our God can take something as somber as that and turn it into a celebration.”
Dodgen and his family live in what he called “the compound” on Black Creek Road. The tornado ripped through the property as it neared the end of its long path, which began near the Alabama-Mississippi state line and roared through Tuscaloosa, Pleasant Grove and Pratt City.
“The storm started on one side of our property, and finished on the other side,” Dodgen went on. “We had about 400 trees, anywhere from 50 to 200 years old. “When it left, they were all laying down. You can see my house from Black Creek Road now — you never could before.”
But despite all of the downed trees, the damage to Dodgen’s house was minor.
“I had one tree come down beside my house, take off the soffit on the side of the house and flatten my tractor. But you know what? The house got fixed and I got a new tractor,” he said laughingly.
“But my family was spared. My pets were even spared.”
And so those gathered were not only to mourn what was lost, but also to celebrate was what spared, and what has been rebuilt.
The storm struck mightily within the city, destroying at least three dozen homes and several businesses while severely damaging many others. Many are already repaired, but others still sit nearly as they were on April 28, for various reasons.
But unlike the other cities in that tornado’s path, or others among the dozens of twisters in the historic outbreak, Fultondale saw no lives lost nor any serious injuries — despite a path of destruction measured at a mile and a half wide through the city. The tornado finally lifted just to the east, after having stayed on the ground for 81 miles.
Fultondale First Baptist took the occasion Sunday to honor those who helped the city pick itself up from the storm’s wake, such as first responders. It also recognized those who suffered damage or loss from the storm, which included about half of those attending.
For First Baptist, there have been storms in the past year that have come not just from the sky, but also from within.
The tornado heavily damaged the oldest part of the complex, a building which originally sat next to Decatur Highway until the road was widened to four lanes in the 1950s. The structure was moved up the hill into the Glendale neighborhood. A new sanctuary and gymnasium were added since.
The steeple is gone, blown many yards away. The windows on the damaged portion are boarded with plywood. That section will eventually be demolished, with classrooms moved into the gym, which will be split into two floors.
The congregation, described by outreach director Judy McGuirk as “aging,” lost its pastor shortly after the tornado. Rev. Billy Hatley, who works with evangelist Scott Dawson, fills the pulpit for now.
The church attempted a merger with nearby CrossPointe Church, an independent Baptist congregation, but scuttled those plans over differences in theology; CrossPointe eventually sold its campus at auction.
Now, as the church begins to rebuild, it seeks a new life of its own. Efforts such as its Cornerstone Café monthly outreach, and a more contemporary worship style are intended to attract younger worshippers. The traditional piano and organ sit silent, replaced by synthesizers, guitars and drums. The well-worn Baptist Hymnal gathers dust in pews, while a big screen displays lyrics above worship leader Tommy Loden, a longtime member of the Fultondale City Council.
It is a whirlwind of change of its own for those who grew up to the hymns of the Wesleys or Isaac Watts, now singing songs from artists such as Amy Grant or the Hillsong groups of Australia.
So a year later, as residents rebuild their homes, businesses and lives, Fultondale First Baptist is trying to do the same, but on a larger scale — weathering its own storms.
Like the city, Fultondale First Baptist remembers, recovers and adapts after 2011 tornado
“Well, this is going to be interesting, folks.”
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