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Presbyterians impacted by and responding to weekend tornado outbreak

Six presbyteries were hit by deadly storms. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is responding

by Rich Copley | Presbyterian News Service

LEXINGTON, Kentucky — Saturday afternoon, in the face of devastating loss, First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield, Kentucky invoked Scripture:

“The bricks have fallen down,

But we will rebuild with smooth stones;

The sycamores have been cut down,

But we will replace with cedars.” (Isaiah 9:10)

These were the first words in a Facebook post from a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) congregation that saw its historic home leveled early Saturday morning as an unprecedented tornado ripped through four states and into its Western Kentucky home.

“Every square inch of this building was full of the Holy Spirit,” the post went on to say. “The corner of 9th and West Broadway is full of the Holy Spirit still.”

First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield, Kentucky, was destroyed early on the morning of Dec. 11, 2021. (Photo by First Presbyterian Church of Mayfield via Facebook)

The catastrophic destruction of Mayfield is one of the harrowing stories the Rev. Jim Kirk, Associate for National Disaster Response for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), heard about over the weekend following a severe weather outbreak that impacted nearly a dozen presbyteries Friday night and early Saturday morning.

“There’s an incredible number of people who have been displaced, because their home has either been heavily damaged or destroyed,” Kirk said. “So, sheltering is going to be a significant need. This will be an event that will require a long-term response for the rebuilding — just an incredible amount of emotional, spiritual care needs, given the number of fatalities and injuries.”

Click here to give to PDA’s efforts to help communities recover from last weekend’s storms

The total death toll, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), is approaching 100, with the majority in Kentucky.

Kirk said that as of Monday morning, PDA had not received any specific requests for grants, but he expects they will be forthcoming. A PDA National Response Team is deploying to the Presbytery of Western Kentucky.

“We’ve heard reports of congregations, and they count presbyteries across the country, stepping up to offer support, and once again I’m grateful for the way that Presbyterians step up after disaster,” Kirk said.

Andrew Perkins (right) talks to Marlon and Kathi Hurst at First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, as Perkins gathered supplies to take to the Mayfield-Graves County area of Western Kentucky to support tornado relief efforts on Dec. 12, 2021. (Photo by Rich Copley)

One of those congregations was First Presbyterian Church in Lexington, Kentucky, more than 260 miles east of Mayfield. Church member Andrew Perkins, who is a native of the Mayfield, Graves County area, put out an appeal for five-gallon buckets, heavy tarps, and work gloves, which he planned to deliver to a group he is coordinating with in the area Monday.

“I know so many people who have lost their homes and some, unfortunately, lost loved ones,” Perkins said Sunday afternoon as a steady stream of First Pres members and friends delivered supplies that filled the church’s nursery. “It’s very difficult to process all of that being four hours away in Lexington. So, this is one way that I can help my home area, help people in that community.”

Observing the growing pile of supplies behind him, Perkins joked, “I keep telling people I’m gonna have to get a bigger truck every time someone brings something in.” But he said that will not be a problem as cash donations he has received will more than cover transportation and go to further recovery efforts.

While some local entities are requesting specific needs, PDA emphasizes the best way people can help is through cash donations, which will allow people in impacted communities to spend it as they need and support area businesses. PDA and other relief entities say people should never send unsolicited supplies such as clothing and household items to disaster areas, because they can compound problems people are already facing.

A map shows the area and presbyteries impacted by a tornado outbreak on Dec. 10 and 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance)

In the early days of this disaster, Kirk can already see that this will be a long-term recovery effort, with plenty of opportunities for Presbyterians to help.

“We would anticipate that there’ll be the need for volunteers for the long-term recovery, to help with repair and rebuilds,” Kirk said. “We do expect that there will be a long-term need for emotional, spiritual care, because of the number of fatalities and injuries.

“This is an event where a significant percentage of multiple communities have been impacted, and that always makes it more challenging because you lose infrastructure. … It’s challenging to restore a community. To rebuild homes, we have plans for that. But how do you rebuild an entire community that lost infrastructure, businesses, jobs? Homes? Gathering places in a community that build community are no longer there — the local coffee shop, town square. That makes it even more challenging.”

Despite the challenge, in the hours after the storm, First Pres Mayfield projected hope, and Sunday morning it joined with neighboring First Christian Church Mayfield for a parking lot communion service.

“The building is gone,” its Facebook post read, “but we, the church, remain. God is faithful and present right here … at 9th and Broadway, and with you wherever you are as well.”

Give to One Great Hour of Sharing to enable Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to respond quickly to catastrophic events.

Presbyterian Disaster Assistance is one of the Compassion, Peace & Justice ministries of the Presbyterian Mission Agency.

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