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Dual roles challenge firefighting preacher

BY GEORGE PIPER | JACKSON, Tenn. | February 7, 1999

JACKSON, Tenn. (Feb. 7, 1999) -- Tornado sites test the physical limits

of rescue workers who search for life and death as they tromp through the

rubble. The same disasters stretch the clergy's spiritual resources as the

congregation seeks answers and guidance through tough times.

These dual stresses converged on Sky McCracken, a pastor at East Trinity

United Methodist Church and a volunteer with the rural Madison County Fire

Department in rural Jackson, Tenn.

When deadly twisters touched down less than a mile from his church in the

evening hours on Jan. 17, McCracken was among the first rescue personnel

entering the Charles Latham subdivision where several East Trinity members

lived.

McCracken arrived at the subdivision's entrance not knowing what to expect

as the post-sundown darkness masked the destruction that lay ahead. A

sheriff's deputy asked McCracken to lead rescue workers in a prayer before

going in.

Artificial light illuminated the area, and McCracken began the dreaded task

of going door-to-door looking for tornado survivors and victims. The

tornado transformed the familiar neighborhood into foreign territory as

street signs and houses were gone. McCracken figured his location by

counting streets and mentally checking off houses in the 10-year-old

neighborhood.

"Out here, I know everybody and it feels good that I can help," said

McCracken,

who sports graying short hair, a mustache and a slight Tennessee drawl.

"But at the same time, these people that I know may be dead."

In the rush of treating the injured, finding the dead and securing the area

from the threat of downed power lines and gas leaks, McCracken had

difficulty gauging the extent of the damage.

When he returned the next day and viewed the landscape in the brightness of

Monday's sunlight, McCracken saw a virtually flat landscape a quarter mile

wide where houses once stood. The twister reduced 40 of the 90 homes to a

pile of rubble and inflicted damage on much of the rest. Four of the East

Trinity's 10 families whose homes were destroyed lived in the subdivision

and one of its members died there.

After aiding the hurt and checking for survivors, McCracken assumed his

pastoral duties at 1 a.m. and visited hospitalized church members. When

providing both physical and spiritual comfort in a disaster, "the stress

goes way up," said McCracken, jutting his thumbs upward.

The fire department helped McCracken gain acceptance into the East Union

area when he became pastor at East Trinity in September 1996. Growing up in

rural Tennessee, he knew how difficult it could be for "outsider" pastors

to be accepted as part of a new community.

Public service extols the virtues of Christianity such as helping others,

McCracken says and he believes ministers should represent their

neighborhood and not just the congregation.

Faith keeps McCracken going and it's that message he dispenses to his

congregation. God is in the tornado he explained, but He understands the

suffering and doesn't cause the wrath.

The firefighting pastor gives his members practical advice as well, telling

them to eat and sleep -- and grieve. McCracken noted that even Jesus wept at

Lazarus' tomb before raising him from the dead.

"(The grief) is going to come when everybody pull out and all the (relief)

agencies are gone," he added.

In the weeks and months ahead, McCracken knows the survivors of the East

Union community will face a tough recovery. Fellow firefighters have

warned him of the post-disaster stress that often haunts rescue workers.

Some of that stress is evident already judging by the sleepless nights

during the week after the storm. In fact, McCracken dreamed of tornadoes

after finally getting to bed in the Monday morning wee hours. It reminded

him of his first major house fire as a firefighter and the ensuing

nightmare of being trapped in a burning room with no windows or doors. This

disaster, he added, is the worst one he's ever faced.

"I have to come to grips with this," he said, adding that then, he'll have his

own tears to shed.

Posted Feb. 7, 1999


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