Jesus loves me, this I know,For the Bible tells me so.Little ones to him belong;They are weak, but he is strong.As a tornado bore down on them that dark afternoon, the Rev. Will Cotton, a few teachers and 16 children attending preschool at St. Barnabas United Methodist Church in Arlington began to sing.Yes, Jesus loves me!Yes, Jesus loves me!Yes, Jesus loves me!The Bible tells me so."They sang with emotion," said Cotton, the senior pastor. "We sang it twice. When we finished the second time, the howling started with the wind, and the glass started to break. Water poured into our room. We had kids standing on the pews of the little chapel, and adults were standing in about a foot of water."About 80 children and 20 adults were inside the church when the tornado hit on April 3, 2012, five days before Easter. It was one of 17 that skated across North Texas that day, an unexpected outbreak that damaged more than 1,000 homes and caused an estimated $1 billion in damage from near Cleburne all the way to Forney, some 70 miles to the northeast. The Tarrant County twister, packing 135 mph winds, touched down in Kennedale after lunch, then worked its way across southwest Arlington, damaging hundreds of homes and businesses, including a nursing home.It danced past Martin High School before dropping down on St. Barnabas, tearing the roof off the Family Life Center, smashing windows, flooding the sanctuary and uprooting trees. It would later be rated an EF2 on the damage scale.Cathy Smith, director of children's ministries, and Amy Richardson, the preschool director, were with another bunch of children in the choir room and an adjoining parlor. They, too, were singing Jesus Loves Me -- until the power went out."Then, it was mostly crying," Smith said.Smith and other teachers started a game of hide-and-seek, persuading the children to crawl beneath choir robes as protection from flying debris."We told the children we were just having an emergency drill and had them get in the duck-and-cover position," Smith said. "Many of the teachers joined hands and began to pray."Blair Rayburn, 5, remembers hiding under the robes."It was dark because there weren't any lights, and I was scared," Blair said. "The walls broke and the rain came inside. I would be scared if another tornado came here."Cotton said everyone was fortunate that the tornado didn't drop too low."It was a second-story tornado," he said. "Had it been a first-floor tornado, there would have been massive casualties."Today, members of St. Barnabas are spending Easter Sunday giving thanks that no one was hurt, that their church has been rebuilt and that the congregation has emerged stronger that ever, said the Rev. Mike Rodden, associate pastor."We don't want to call a tornado a blessing, but a blessing has come out of it," Rodden said. "It stirred us all up literally, and then stirred our hearts. It grew us all closer together, closer to God. It's changed the vibrancy of this church."Cotton agreed."Something special happens when you come together as people of faith," he said. "You end up igniting in a way that you've never been before. In the process of the rebuild, both spiritually and relationally, our sense of purpose of who we are, all that was renewed."It's been a really powerful experience, and it's still going on."'I'm very grateful'The tornado caused $3.6 million in damage. But it also carved a path to grace.Before the sanctuary reopened in September, church members discovered what it means to be part of a community, Rodden said."The Arlington Seventh-day Adventist Church down the road was gracious enough to let us meet in their building," Rodden said. "They told us, 'We are going to charge you what Jesus charged us, which is nothing.'"Nearby Tate Springs Baptist Church opened its doors for St. Barnabas' early childhood education classes."People poured out their love and care for us in a way that will forever leave us different," Cotton said. "People sent gifts from all over the country."Today, the church building is better than ever."It's like a new place," Cotton said. "We had to replace all our technical stuff -- sound, lighting, projectors. It's all really upgraded."Our Family Life Center now has a true gym-type floor, replacing stained carpeting. All the church pews had to be reupholstered because of embedded glass."Cotton has also had his own renewal.On the day the tornado hit, he had visited his doctor for a checkup; it was the one-month anniversary of his cancer surgery."My first Sunday back in the pulpit after having a kidney removal, I did a whole thing on the tragedies that come our way. I said that God does not send them, but he's always in the midst of them. I was tracing my own journey. I had no idea I was preparing the congregation," he said.Cotton's one-year scan revealed that he is cancer-free."I'm very grateful," he said.'Something you don't forget'Despite the good that came from the tornado, Cotton said, the memory has stayed with him and others who experienced the storm."All of us have our own stories to tell about that," he said. "We had some post-traumatic issues, some for the children and some for the staff. We had counselors with the children."Right away, the kids had dreams and nightmares and their own ways of describing what happened."During counseling, children drew pictures."One pictured a monster who had come and wrecked the place," Cotton said.Cotton said the healing continues -- for him and the others."We went to see the movie Oz the Great and Powerful, and they did a really good job with the tornado scene," Cotton said. "All of a sudden, the sounds were identical to what I had heard a year ago. For a moment, I had this sick, anxious feeling, and my wife asked me, 'Are you going to be OK?'"Others told Cotton they had similar experiences at the movie."So we are gradually adjusting to those things," Cotton said. "I think the children are really doing well. Still, it's something you don't forget."Cotton doesn't plan to focus on the tornado during his Easter sermon."Surely, we won't ignore it, either," he said. "Easter is a celebration of what God has done and continues to do. Out of the midst of our devastations, God does resurrection and restoration, and Easter still happens."Jesus loves me -- he who died,Heaven's gate to open wide.He will wash away my sin,Let his little child come in.
St. Barnabas United Methodist Church, 5011 W. Pleasant Ridge Road, Arlington.
7 a.m.: Son Rise service, front lawn
8:15, 9:30, 11 a.m.: Worship services
9 a.m.: Tornado T-shirts on sale
Tornado anniversary celebration: 5:30 p.m. Wednesday