St. Barnabas congregation's back in their sanctuary after devastating tornado

Posted Sunday, Sep. 16, 2012  comments  Print Reprints
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ARLINGTON -- What's a little rainfall to the storm-tossed but sturdy congregation of Arlington's St. Barnabas United Methodist Church?

They celebrated a triumphant homecoming on Sunday in their renovated sanctuary and renewed the ties that bind.

The precipitation served to soften memories of the April 3rd Easter week tornado that devastated the campus of the 1,500-member congregation at 5011 W. Pleasant Ridge Road. It did not, however, devastate their spirit or their faith.

"The life lesson here is, we're more than our buildings," said senior pastor Will Cotton before the 11 a.m. service. "We learned to rely on God and make room for each other."

Sixty percent of the St. Barnabas facility was damaged and losses amounted to $3.6 million, said Cotton.

All roofs and flooring throughout the building had to be replaced, along with all the technology; the Family Life Center had to be completely gutted.

The sanctuary had broken glass, water and debris damage, and damage to a stained-glass window that is the focal point of the sanctuary.

Renovation work has been completed faster than anticipated, Cotton said.

The building was insured for $6 million, and the church received $80,000 in donations from outside their congregation, Cotton said, mostly from neighboring churches and community members. Some churches lent their facilities and performed other services for St. Barnabas, a 35-year-old congregation.

The storm hit less than a month after Cotton returned to work after cancer surgery. His own home near the church was also damaged by the storm.

For days, passers-by on Pleasant Ridge slowed to gape at the sight of one of the property's huge oak trees, twisted from its roots and grotesquely splayed against the building's west side.

The sight became iconic of the wrath of the F-2 tornado, one of more than a dozen that struck the Fort Worth-Dallas area that day. Remarkably, only a few injuries were recorded in the entire area, and no deaths.

The year of uncertainty has been one the church's children won't soon forget.

"It's been a life-changing experience to see the damage, and now to see everything new again," said Sean Smith, 12.

Smith was in school when the storm raced through the church and nearby neighborhoods. It missed nearby Martin High School, but bore down on St. Barnabas and 80 preschoolers and toddlers inside in the children's classrooms on the west side of the building.

"It was a rough day," recalled Kristina Johnson, who was teaching 10 two-year-olds in one of the two rooms hard-hit when the airborne tree's limbs breached the church's stucco outer wall.

Alarms sounded, and adults hurried the children into the windowless choir room across the hall.

"There was a big huge boom, and debris went flying," Johnson said.

In the days that followed, the battered spring landscape drew more of the childrens' attention than the ruined building.

"What sticks in their minds the most is where all the pretty flowers went," said Johnson.

Now the colors of fall flowers greet church-goers and children alike. Members of the congregation carry small pieces of wood from the uprooted tree on their keychains to remind them of their blessings.

Many at Sunday's crowded services wore T-shirts displaying an image of the tree and the slogan, "The building may be down, but the church still stands."

The original designer of the stained glass window was located and he repaired the piece using his original schematics from the 1990s.

"Today means we have many blessings, home, and family and friends," said Harley Maberry, a St. Barnabas member since 1989 who handed out programs on Sunday. "We've been torn apart, but now we can come back together and have all these people come in and join us."

Music director Mark Edwards described the church's trials during the service, and signaled the lifting of members' communal stress with his comforting anthem, Permission to Breathe.

Cotton's sermon was about the Biblical Prodigal Son, the power of love and the joy of homecoming.

"We will never be the same as we were before," Cotton told his flock. "We have been loved into becoming something new."

Shirley Jinkins, 817-390-7657

Twitter: @shirljinkins

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5011 W. Pleasant Ridge Road, Arlington, TX
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