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Resurrection story has new meaning for Baptist pastor

BY P.J. HELLER | EDGEWATER, AL | May 11, 1998

As pastor of the Edgewater Baptist Church, Mike Lansford Sr., knows the Easter story of death and

resurrection. But this year, that story took on a new meaning. Tornadoes which ripped through Alabama on Wednesday, April 8, slammed into

Lansford's small church, leaving nothing but rubble and debris.

"On Good Friday (when we were allowed into the area), there was the death of the physical facility," recalled Ricky Creech, director of the

Birmingham Baptist Association. "By Easter Sunday, there was a sunrise service there. People came and we celebrated the resurrection."

The resurrection of the 60 to 70-member church in Edgewater was spearheaded by Mike Dennis, director of maintenance at Huffman Baptist

Church in nearby Birmingham.

"The amazing thing was that on Friday, I had to send people home to take care of their own houses," Dennis said. "I said, 'We'll take care of

your church. You take care of your home.' We had people who had trees on their homes who were trying to save their church rather than going

home to take care of their own homes. They were trying to get the Lord's house in order before they got their own houses in order. I thought it

was a testimonial to them."

Volunteers -- both individuals and from faith-based organizations as far away as Minnesota and North Carolina streamed into the Birmingham

area to help in the initial recovery effort. The twisters damaged or destroyed more than 1,100 homes and left 34 people dead.

In Edgewater, Dennis said he saw an elderly woman weeping as she stood outside what remained of her home. "She had no insurance and she

had nothing left," he said. "The storm took her house, her clothes, everything. The next day, she was over at the church helping us clean up. I

said, 'Ma'am, don't you live right down the street here?' She said, 'Yes, I've lost everything but that doesn't mean I can't help.'"

Lansford said he was "amazed" to see 50 to 100 people at the church site on Friday and Saturday cleaning up the debris. One person brought

in a back hoe to help clear the area.

One woman who showed up at the church told him she and her daughter had planned to go shopping that day.

"She said, 'God spoke to me and told me I need to come over to Edgewater and help, so here I am,'" Lansford related. "She said she didn't know

how to do anything except pick up and tote things, and that's exactly what she and her daughter did."

Lansford's one wish was to be able to hold the annual joint Easter sunrise service with the Edgewater United Methodist Church, outside on

Sunday at 6 a.m. and then be able to conduct a regular church worship service later in the morning. Both churches were destroyed by the storm.

Dennis swung into action, retrieving a generator, some portable sound equipment, chairs and an extra pulpit from his church. He and a friend

even brought a large wooden cross, which had been used as a prop, to set on the hillside so people would know the service was being held. In

the meantime, pews that had been salvaged from the rubble were fastened to the slab floor of the church building -- all the remained of the

original structure. Lansford conducted the regular 11 a.m. church service that morning, preaching on the slab floor of what once had been a

building with walls, ceiling, doors and windows.

"The Sunday morning service was held in the same place they worship every Sunday, except there were no walls. There was no roof. There was

nothing but a slab," Creech noted.

Despite the massive devastation -- there were a few lighter moments. "Somebody found a piece of sheet music on Friday as they were sifting

through the debris. It was, 'I'll Fly Away.'"

Lansford said he also found a Bible in the rubble, one used in the church and which was normally opened to Matthew. The book was opened

instead to another passage in Isaiah, but and showed no signs of damage from the storm, not even a bent or torn page, he said. Lansford said

the message he preached on Easter Sunday was from Isaiah, noting that part of it talks about "rebuilding out of the waste and desolation."

"I truly believe that God sent us a message that we would rebuild our community and our church building," Lansford said. In addition to

bringing the community together, Creech said, the tornadoes made people stop and think about forces beyond their control.

"We have the technology and the expertise to create life in a test tube and to bring a stopped heart back to beating," he said. "But yet when it

comes to the forces of nature, we're powerless. It's very humbling, very humbling. Everybody was just awestruck."

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