East Texas Tornado rips off church steeple
By Lindsay Peyton
Members of Mt. Enterprise FUMC were about to sit down for a Passover meal, when the clouds started to darken outside. A series of tornadoes would soon touch down in the small towns of East Texas, and Mt. Enterprise, located north of Nacogdoches, was no exception. The story of the angel of death “passing over” the homes of the ancient Israelites was on the minds of parishioners as they hunkered down. Lay Pastor Billy Bledsoe led them in prayer. “That angel of death literally passed over us,” he said. “And now it’s time to get closer with Jesus and with each other.”
The Passover observance was scheduled in the family life center at Mt. Enterprise FUMC on Saturday, March 27. The Volunteer Fire Department’s chief Deniese Case was in attendance.
She received a notice on the phone and looked up at the congregation. “She said, ‘Y’all, there’s a tornado coming to us,’” Bledsoe recalled.
The congregation stepped outside. “You could see the sky was different,” Bledsoe said. “It was like a murky green blue.”
Prayer in the pantry
He led members inside into a large pantry, where the 16 people at the event could wait out the storm. One member asked for prayer. Bledsoe started, “'Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.”
“There are different types of prayer,” Bledsoe said. “You pray in home; you pray in faith.”
In this moment, his prayer felt urgent. He was concerned about the safety of his flock.
As he formed the words, he felt a sudden calm and the presence of the Holy Spirit. “Fear wasn’t there, because I was praying so much,” he said. “It was loud outside. I knew when it was coming over us. And I kept praying.”
The tornado outside would later be classified as an EF2, with a wind speed of around 120 miles per hour. It was the kind of force that can shift an entire home from its foundation, remove a roof and uproot a tree.
But those hiding in the pantry could not have fathomed the extent of the damage yet. All they knew was that the sound eventually faded away. When they emerged, it was dark. The power went out during the storm.
Bledsoe went outside to assess the damage of their sanctuary, which is across the street from the fellowship hall. “I stood at the door,” he recalled. “You can only digest so much. I saw the stained glass had tin in it and was shattered. Then I looked up at the steeple, and it wasn’t there.”
Nothing but sky
He crossed the street and started taking photos to record the damage. “Our steeple was gone,” he said. “Where the belltower stood was now nothing but sky.”
The front porch with its four columns had all moved. “The door even moved,” Bledsoe said.
The roof was ripped apart in places. Wires hung down from where the belltower had been torn from the church.
Immediately, Bledsoe worried about how his small, older congregation could handle the devastation. That moment, however, did not last for long.
Members of a neighboring Baptist church arrived – a father, his sons and the pastor. The parishioners at Mt. Enterprise FUMC grabbed a ladder and some rope. Before long, tarps were covering the roof.
“It was a Godsend,” Bledsoe said.
He then went to check on the other congregation where he serves, Concord UMC. There was no damage and the electricity was still on. Next, he drove home and also found it unharmed.
Bledsoe made the decision to continue his service the next day. “We walked out of that fellowship without a scratch,” he said. “We’re going to come back tomorrow to worship and praise the Lord.”
The following Monday, District Superintendent Dr. Richard P. White came to check on the church. He had called the other congregations in the East District of the Texas Annual Conference, and Mt. Enterprise FUMC was the only one to sustain damage.
He drove around the district on Monday and saw the fallen trees and damage. He commended Pastor Bledsoe for his leadership. “Literally, the tornado passed over them,” White said. “If they would have been in the church, they would have been hurt.”
Now, Mt. Enterprise is in the rebuilding process. Bledsoe said that they are looking for bids from contractors and waiting for insurance claims. “Most of us have never navigated something like this,” he said. “There’s the immediate and the long-term process of recovery.”
On Tuesday, two days after the tornado, Mennonite volunteers arrived at the church. “That was encouraging to me,” Bledsoe said. “It was like Him wrapping an arm around us.”
He showed the Mennonites where tress had fallen. “Before I knew it, two more young men showed up, and chainsaws were going,” he said.
More repairs needed
Still, the pastor said, long-term help will be needed. There is a roof to mend, carpet to replace and stained glass to repair. In addition, to carpenters, the church needs electricians to rewire the building.
“God moves through prayer,” Bledsoe said. “We also will need some hands and feet – and some offerings of love.”
Donations to the church can be made at Mt. Enterprise FUMC/ P.O. Box 38/ Mt. Enterprise, TX 75681.
In the meantime, Bledsoe planned an Easter celebration for both congregations at Concord. “We can bring people in and fill the house,” he said. “It’s a time when we can come together not only physically but spiritually as well. I believe this is an opportunity for us to get closer to Jesus, to be more in his presence.”
The church is simply a building, Bledsoe explained. “It’s the people He is concerned about,” the pastor added. “It’s time to get closer to the Lord, to have hope.”
And that hope, after all, is what Easter is all about, he said. It is the hope that comes with the resurrection.