Thursday, March 14, 2019 was a WPSD Weather Authority Alert day, not an uncommon thing for Paducah, Ky. in the spring. It had issued a tornado watch for all of far western Kentucky and surrounding areas, but by 9 a.m. the watch had quickly escalated to a warning.
Michelle Rushing, the new preschool director at Mt. Zion Baptist Church, had submitted her disaster plan and just received state approval of it two weeks earlier. The plan was to move all the children to an inner room, which they did thanks to a WPSD alert app on their phones. Miraculously, they were able to move four crib babies as well—just 10 minutes before a tornado struck—tearing off a section of roof above the nursery.
As the storm roared about them, the workers and little ones huddled together in relative darkness for about 40 minutes, singing "Jesus Loves Me" and "He's Got the Whole World In His Hands." Although some of the children were frightened, others were not fully aware of what was happening—only that the wind was noisy. Gusts of 70-80 mph continued to pound the church building for minutes. Power lines were knocked down. Jackson Purchase Energy Corp. stated that 8,000 customers lost power. After the storm passed, Michelle called the frantic parents, telling them to come pick up their kids. One mother tearfully embraced her daughter who didn't understand the hubbub. She simply said, "There was a big tomato chasing us, and it was loud!" Another child claimed that the bad Power Rangers did it.
Not only did Mt. Zion experience a miracle of protection, but the community did as well. In spite of a 5-mile long stretch of devastation, the only injury was a minor one to a trucker enveloped by a huge grain silo that was deposited across the street, right near Mt. Zion! Also blessed were at least 12 church families who live within a mile of the church. Those homes sustained only minor damage.
McCracken County Sheriff Sgt. Ryan Willett had arrived at Mt. Zion to check out conditions, thinking the EF2 tornado was about five miles away. Then he saw the debris field come through the parking lot.
"I heard and felt both of my side windows break out," Willett said. "It sounded like someone was sitting on the side of my car, hitting it with a sledgehammer."
At a news conference, McCracken County Sheriff Matt Carter said, "The almighty hand of God has provided safety to our community, these children, this gentle-man and this church. This could have been an extremely high fatality rate."
About 100 people showed up to clean up debris the next day. Not only Mt. Zion church members responded, but members of other churches and compassionate folks from the community. Local businesses donated supplies like tarps, lumber, work gloves, snacks and hot lunches. God's provision continued. Saturday, more workers showed up, many of them parents of the preschoolers. They were trying to help clean the newly-designated area for the preschool in areas off the Family Life Center, which was intact. The state approved the reopening in that temporary setting for March 25, with only a few days of closure.
Sunday, the Family Life Center was packed with faithful members, marginal members, preschool families and community guests. The Paducah television station as well as FOX News from Missouri filmed the celebration, staying for the entire 2-hour praise service.
In an interview, Senior Pastor Wes Conner said, "We join with the rest of the Paducah community in thanking God no one was seriously injured."
After hearing special music like "The Master of the Wind" and "The Anchor Holds," people were invited to come forward to the microphones and give personal testimonies.
Michelle Rushing and church administrative assistant Emma Chapman (who had a child in the preschool) praised God in recalling the events of the day. They shared a special bond known only to those who have gone through a trial together. Pastor Conner said, "There needed to be that catharsis of people being able to share their emotions, being able to share what they experienced." The service ended with altar prayer and encouragement. Then the congregation came forward to lay hands on Bro. Conner and his wife, Eve, praying for strength and wisdom for Mt. Zion's future direction.
Summing it up, Pastor Conner echoed the theme of the special music. "Though the ship is battered, the anchor holds, though the sails are torn … God is always there, and He is an anchor for our soul, both steadfast and sure."
We cannot know the mind of God, but we can see wonderful results from this event. Michelle Rushing reflects on how precious life is, especially with children. "We hold them a little tighter every night, and show them how much we love them."
Mt. Zion plans to rebuild the chapel, perhaps even bigger. Better than that is the effect on hearts that were tendered by the events of the week. God's power was well evidenced and broadcast throughout the community, the country and even to the London Daily Mail website.
Marginal members were impressed to be more faithful. Preschool parents were touched by the gospel. Church members came together with each other and the community for a common cause. Whatever God's purposes, He definitely prepared people and orchestrated situations as He did with Esther "for such a time as this." Everything that happened was for our eventual good and for His glory. And if this is the Refiner's Fire, we shall come forth as gold!
Marilyn Gregory is a member of Mt. Zion Baptist Church.