FORT WORTH — A church that grew from a handful of members to more than 1,500, then was virtually wiped off the face of Fort Worth, not only survived disaster but thrived, and turns 50 this week.“We started with nothing,” said Bob Nichols, who with his wife, Joy, founded Calvary Cathedral International in 1964.Nichols said he has seen God’s hand in countless events and circumstances since he and Joy had to “borrow $1,000 from a Baptist banker” to buy a vacant U.S. Post Office on Fort Worth’s south side. After seasons of slow growth at 1401 W. Berry St., the church was approached by a group of “ Jesus hippies” — a ’60s movement to get high with Christ instead of drugs — who asked to hold services there at night until they could make other arrangements, Nichols said.“We went 15 weeks with them, and it was life changing,” Nichols said. “We’d never had drums and guitars before. They wanted to reach the neighborhood children before they got messed up in the drugs and behaviors that they had struggled with and, through Christ, had overcome.”The church embraced that outreach ministry and never looked back, Nichols said.“That’s what exploded our congregation,” Nichols said. “Reaching out and loving people who were hurting has always been what we do. The young people really kicked it into high gear.”The congregation grew so much that, by 1976, it could buy and move into the former First Baptist Church of Fort Worth’s 110,000-square-foot downtown campus at 1600 W. Fifth St.Then, on March 28, 2000, a storm system that produced two tornadoes created a 3.5-mile swath of debris from River Oaks to Sundance Square, then skittered off to Arlington and Grand Prairie, leveling more than 100 homes and wreaking $450 million in damage in the process, reduced Calvary Cathedral’s home next to the Trinity River to rubble.‘Over in 44 seconds’Nichols and his wife were in his office until moments before the tornado struck. Moving into a small adjacent room likely saved their lives. Nichols said God’s presence was evident as the tornado ravaged their church.Children who were in one of the campus’ three wood-framed annex classrooms were ushered into an inner room of the main building by a teacher who “just didn’t like the color of the clouds,” Nichols said. Minutes later, all three annexes were destroyed; two were just gone.Two women who were in the prayer tower were untouched by the 100-mph winds that ripped away the tower’s walls.Nichols held onto the doorknob of that tiny room and felt it shake as though a monster was trying to get in.“It was over in 44 seconds,” Nichols said. “When I opened the door to my office where we’d just been, it was like a bomb had gone off.”When all the heads were counted, only one of them had been injured. The teacher who had taken her kids inside ended up with a scalp wound that required three stitches, Nichols said.“Some people thought the storm put us out of business,” Nichols said. “The media kept asking me if I felt like quitting, that it was a dark omen. I said ‘No, I believe that, as it was with Job, we’ll come out with more than twice as much.’ ”‘Divine providence’And so it was. Only six months before the storm, Nichols read about a gas explosion destroying a church house and asked his business administrator to check on Calvary’s insurance.“We were 50 percent under value,” Nichols said. “I told him to bring it up to 100 percent. That was divine providence.”Because of that, Calvary Cathedral’s more than 1,200 members worship in one of the city’s landmark churches. Midtown Church of Christ invited them to meet in its landmark domed building a stone’s throw from Interstate 35W, just a couple of miles from downtown. A year later, Midtown sold the property to Calvary and moved to a new campus 10 miles north, becoming Heritage Church of Christ.Initially, there was less room — 83,000 square feet and around 1,600 seats in the sanctuary — in the distinctive round building. But Calvary more than made up for it with a new 74,000-square-foot Calvary Christian Academy building paid for in cash. Instead of borrowing money to put a gymnasium on the downtown campus, as the church had planned before the storm, it now had a gym in the new building and another in the building that housed the sanctuary and offices.In addition to the fully accredited kindergarten-through-12th grade Christian school and daycare, Calvary also has a bible college, a community clothing and food pantry called STITCHES and ministries serving people from the north side to Africa. It also has a prison ministries.Though it’s now conducted in an upper room on the main building’s second floor, the ministry that began in the destroyed prayer tower continues under the name Power Tower. A team takes two-hour shifts to keep prayer going 24/7, on behalf of people who submit requests.Broadcasting has given the church an unprecedented reach. It’s radio ministry reaches out from 12:30 to 7:15 p.m. Monday through Friday on KDKR 91.3 FM. But its crown jewel is the 50,000-watt, 24-hour Lighthouse Television station in Kampala, Uganda. This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.
Terry Evans, 817-390-7620 Twitter: @fwstevans