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Determined to rebuild, First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield reflects on a year of lessons from a December 2021 tornado

Western Kentucky church finds ways to bless others while working and planning together

by Darla Carter | Presbyterian News Service

The plans for First Presbyterian Church in Mayfield, Kentucky, are reflected in a sign on the site where the church’s more than 100-year-old building once stood. The church was destroyed by a tornado in December 2021. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church)

LOUISVILLE — A year after a tornado destroyed First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield, Kentucky, and much of the community, the disaster has left the church grounds virtually bare. But a sign gives a hint of a promising future.

The sign, emblazoned with the scripture Isaiah 58:12 from Eugene Peterson’s The Message Bible, says, “You’ll use the old rubble of past lives to build anew, rebuild the foundations from out of your past. You’ll be known as those who can fix anything, restore old ruins, rebuild and renovate, make the community livable again.”

It’s a passage that the congregation holds onto as they make incremental steps toward rebuilding.

“I fully believe we’re going to come out of this much better than we were — much stronger,” said Dale Usher, a lifelong member of First Presbyterian who chairs the Building and Grounds Committee.

Their commitment to rebuilding stems not only from a love of the church but also a desire to remain part of the town, which sustained severe damage in the storm that struck shortly before Christmas 2021.

The deadly tornado resulted in almost complete destruction of Mayfield’s downtown historic district and also damaged many other structures, including a candle factory, as 190 mph winds tore through the close-knit community.

“Mayfield is small enough that there’s a lot of pride in the community and what happens, and everybody wants to be … a part of its rebirth,” said Don Barger, the commissioned lay pastor who serves First Presbyterian Church.

Don Barger, commissioned lay pastor at Mayfield Presbyterian Church, leads an Advent service at Kendor Wood following last year’s tornado. Praying behind the Advent candles are Juanita and Danny Upton. (Photo by Rich Copley)

To that end, the congregation has acquired an architect, an engineer and a consulting group that serves as a liaison with the Federal Emergency Management Agency. It also has established small groups to provide suggestions about various aspects of the project. But circumstances prevent members from establishing a specific timeline for rebuilding.

“We’re working on God’s time, and we don’t know what that timeline looks like,” Barger said. “But we’re also working on FEMA(‘s) timeline, and we certainly don’t know what that looks like. We continue to work with FEMA on a weekly basis,” trying to “find out exactly how much funding we might be able to receive from FEMA towards the construction of the new building.”

Meanwhile, the church, which is more than 100 years old, has bought property nearby that will not only provide space for overflow parking once a new sanctuary is built but also house a planned new building, where people recovering from alcohol and substance abuse will be able to meet. That’s a role the church filled prior to the tornado and wants to continue, Usher said. The building also will be a place that the congregation can use until the main sanctuary is complete.

Before the tornado outbreak, the church had essentially three buildings — a sanctuary, an education/administration building and a ministry building with a huge kitchen. Items that have been recovered include pieces of stained glass that are being transformed into ornaments and jewelry for sale, and the bell from the church’s former bell tower.

The bell of First Presbyterian Church in Mayfield was found in the rubble of the church building after it was destroyed by a December 2021 tornado. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church)

“We are in the process of trying to come up with a number on what it would cost to build all three buildings back exactly like they were, only now with current building codes and standards,” Usher said. “I mean, the stained-glass windows, the organ … everything that we had … all the ornate woodwork and brickwork. It’s going to cost a whole lot of money.”

In the meantime, the congregation will continue to hold services at Kendor Wood, a cabinet door manufacturer in Mayfield that’s owned by a member family, the Uptons, and remains committed to moving forward with zeal.

Melinda Craig, Jacque Dale, Don Barger and Dale Usher talk after a 2021 worship service in the break room of Kendor Wood, which is owned by church members Danny and Juanita Upton. Members of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance National Response Team attended that service. (Photo by Rich Copley)

“There’s a new purpose in planning and working together and trying to decide what you need as a group,” said FPC’s clerk of session, Melinda Craig, who’s been a member since around 1980 and holds many fond memories of the church. “God always brings good things out of bad things.”

Helping other churches in need

In addition to planning, the church has found solace in making monetary gifts to other churches that have found themselves in similar circumstances. That includes Graham Memorial Presbyterian Church in Whitesburg, which suffered from eastern Kentucky’s devasting flooding in July, and Chapel by the Sea Presbyterian Church, a church in Fort Myers Beach, Florida, that was destroyed by Hurricane Ian in late September.

Looking to the future, the Mayfield church also has started a Pay It Forward fund to collect donations to assist churches that find themselves in unfortunate situations.

First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield is ministering to other churches that have also seen devastation. (Photo courtesy of First Presbyterian Church)

“The next time another church — doesn’t have to be a Presbyterian church — but another church that we hear of, or a community that suffers a devastating storm of some kind, we will again reach out and say, ‘Here, let us help you,’” Barger said.

Meanwhile, Usher, who has spent many hours engaging with FEMA, has offered himself as a person who can provide advice to churches about interacting with the federal agency. “I’ve got stuff that I can tell you that I learned that will save you so much heartache and time and trouble,” he said.

Rebuilding will likely be on the minds of church members as they gather for an outdoor service on Christmas Eve on the site of the old church, just as they did nearly a year ago in a service that appeared on the cover of the New York Times.

Some, no doubt, will be wondering “what’s this piece of property going to look like this time next year?” Usher said. “And my goal is — I don’t know if it’ll happen or not because it’s all dependent on FEMA — … is to break ground before Dec. 10 next year. That’s my goal.”

But, as Barger has noted, life is unpredictable.  “We no longer talk about the word soon,” the commissioned lay pastor said. “We thought things would happen much sooner. We thought they would happen on our time. … Doesn’t work that way.”

To make a contribution to First Presbyterian Church, use this address: P.O. Box 435, Mayfield, Ky., 42066, and designate what you would like it to be used for.

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond quickly to catastrophic events. Read about PDA’s response in Mayfield here.

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