Faith and hope amid the ruins

First, there was that one big story.

Then, there was that EVEN BIGGER STORY.

Down South, though, about 350 people are dead and thousands more hurt and homeless after a swath of tornadoes cut a deadly path across seven Southern states -- hitting Alabama hardest -- last Wednesday night. It's the nation's deadliest twister outbreak since the Great Depression and America's worst natural disaster since Hurricane Katrina, according to the news reports I've read.

We exist here at this friendly little weblog because the mainstream media often do not GetReligion.

It does not take an editor with a seminary degree, however, to know that on the Sunday after a big disaster in the Bible Belt, reporters better crawl out of bed long before noon and go to church.

In my Associated Press days, I always loved these assignments because the guild contract required paying reporters a full day's salary even if they only worked a few hours of overtime on an off day. So you'd go to a morning service -- or maybe two or three -- feed your quotes to the person writing the day's big roundup and be home by noon with a nice little bit of extra pay.

But I digress ...

It appears that most of the major media -- and of course, the local newspapers in storm-ravaged communities -- got the memo about the importance of going and writing the "faith and hope amid the ruins" stories.

And quite honestly, most did an incredible job with these stories. Most followed the same formula, opening with a pastor addressing his weary congregation and discussing God's presence in the storm. But wow, such stories can be powerful -- no matter how many times you've read them. It's almost as if faith plays a tremendous role in people's lives.

From the Los Angeles Times:

Alabama pastor Tommie Lewis took one good look at his congregants and asked, "Why?"

Four days after tornadoes ravaged their town and their state, they came ready to listen, and he came ready to preach.

"Why is it that the deaths are now beyond 200 and approaching 300? Why do good people who live in their homes 50 years, never bothering nobody, have to get swept away? Why do folks who paid their car notes every month now have no cars? Why?"

Across the South, this day of worship couldn't have come soon enough. Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians and others dusted themselves off, reached for their finest clothing — some donated, some borrowed — and flocked to God to refuel their faith and gather hope on a Sunday that Alabama's governor had declared a Day of Prayer.

From the Wall Street Journal:

GLENCOE, Ala. -- Pastor Allen Murphy, 61 years old, spoke to worshippers Sunday at the new Mamre Baptist Church, framed by a stained-glass window of Jesus kneeling and looking upward. Above, the church roof was torn away.

"We'd be lost and undone without Jesus," he told the assembly of about 100 people.

Two Mamre Baptist Churches in northeast rural Alabama, the old and the new, were destroyed by last week's tornadoes. One church member died and several others were injured in the old church, where they had sought shelter.

The last words of Spencer Motes, 33 years old, according to witnesses, were, "Get on your knees!" as the door of the church basement blew open and the structure fell in.

Throughout the service, in the new church down the hill from the old one, people called out amens and raised trembling hands. They sang "Victory in Jesus," calling for salvation and rebirth.

From AFP, the French news agency:

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama -- Grieving storm survivors turned to prayer and the good grace of volunteers Sunday across the US south as shattered communities looked to rebuild after the second-worst tornado disaster on record.

Churches from Mississippi to Virginia flung open their doors for prayers, some in the very houses of worship destroyed by powerful tornadoes that claimed nearly 350 lives on Wednesday.

"This is the Bible Belt. Church goes on regardless," Tennessee Emergency Management Agency spokesman Jeremy Heidt told AFP.

In hardest-hit Alabama, where Governor Robert Bentley declared a state-wide day of prayer, the faithful gathered under open skies, in parking lots and church sites on the first Sunday since the historic disaster wiped several of their churches off the map.

In the town of Phil Campbell, congregants erected a makeshift wooden cross and sang hymns on the concrete slab where the Church of God once stood, before some of the most powerful tornadoes on record left it and thousands of homes and businesses in splinters.

Alabama papers also had some nice writing -- including here, here and here -- on the Sunday after the twisters.

From the Tuscaloosa News:

ALBERTA - As they gathered around and held hands to sing the standard gospel song “Amazing Grace,” many members of Alberta Baptist Church began to cry, but implicit in the prayer was the resolve to carry on.

“We pray, oh, God, for your mercy, for your precious strength and provision...,” the Rev. Larry Corder prayed later in a small service in the parking lot outside the church building that stood for nearly 60 years before the tornado last week nearly demolished it.

“We thank you, Father, for what you're going to do in our lives and in this community in the days that lie ahead.”

Even the New York Times made it to church.

For whatever reason, though, the Times didn't stay long. The paper's story hits the faith angle, then quickly switches to government officials:

All across the South on Sunday, worshipers arrived in borrowed or newly bought clothes, carrying tattered family Bibles found among the ruins. They sang hymns, gave thanks for miracles and celebrated tearful reunions. And they looked for answers.

“Why?” asked Reverend Lewis. “Why? Why is it that the death toll now is beyond 200, approaching 300, and they’re still counting?”

While the preachers wrestled with the big questions, governmental officials focused on more concrete matters.

On Sunday afternoon, White House officials visited Pratt City and Smithville, Miss., touring the ruins with state and local officials, pledging federal support and addressing the priorities of the response.

“Obviously housing will be perhaps the single most critical part of the recovery, and we have a number of efforts under way already,” said Shaun Donovan, the secretary of housing and urban development, who was accompanied by the secretaries of homeland security and agriculture, among other officials.

Insert yawn here.

Seriously, "carrying tattered family Bibles found among the ruins" is a nice turn of phrase. But dare I ask for a source? Dare I expect to see someone actually quoted who carried one of these Bibles? Maybe it's just me, but I'm thinking that person might have a much more interesting story than White House officials.

The Times eventually returns to the faith angle, but -- and maybe it's just me -- its piece seems to lack the true emotion and raw depth of most of the other major media reports.

I saved the best for last, however. Did I mention that the AP has experience with these kind of roundups? I especially loved the lede on AP's story as it opened with a slightly different angle than the other reports (and then came back later with a little more detail on the Muslim and Baptist referenced):

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Macolee Muhammed accepted the prayer of a relief worker who stopped by what was left of her Birmingham home. It didn't matter that she was Muslim and he was a Southern Baptist.

"If you came here to help, the only person who sent you was God," she said.

The storms that roared across the South last week flattened churches and crushed the homes of pastors and parishioners in a ragged stretch from Mississippi to Virginia. At least 342 people were killed and thousands more hurt.

So on the first Sunday after the disaster, believers streamed into houses of worship to give thanks for being spared, to mourn the dead and to ponder impossible questions. Why did some survive without any explanation? Why did others die for no apparent reason?

Many people in this highly religious region saw God at work, even amid the devastation.

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