Twister slams Crosstown, MBC responds

Twister slams Crosstown, MBC responds

Bethlehem church finds new strength after a tornado

By Allen Palmeri
Senior Writer

CROSSTOWN – Steve Francis, pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, had his vacation cut short Sept. 22 by a tornado that essentially leveled this community of a little more than 100 people. The sanctuary and the parsonage were ruined as well as 13 homes of church members.

Francis was going to preach at a cowboy church service in Bollinger County while his father was going to fill the pulpit at Crosstown. After hearing about the tornado, the men reversed assignments. A stunned Francis tried to collect his thoughts as he drove back to his home area a few miles from the Mississippi River and about 16 miles southeast of Perryville.

He had shepherded these people for eight years. What now?

Francis began by calling the church treasurer. The treasurer’s wife answered and told her pastor that the house around the phone was no more.

“It was kind of a surprise that the phone even worked,” Francis said.

Law enforcement officials told the pastor that he could not get into the area that night because of the looters. No one was getting in and out of Crosstown, Francis was told. He had to wait until the morning of Sept. 23.

“I thought it was a war zone,” he said. “It just was devastated—everything you saw. Nobody’s house was saved, just pieces missing here and there.

“When I got to the parsonage, where we had our place, it was nothing but a flat slab. Everything was gone. Some of them at least had possessions that they were finding. We couldn’t find anything. It was just gone.”

The church was still standing but ravaged to the point where it can no longer be used by the congregation.

“We got most of the possessions out of the church,” Francis said. “It has substantial water damage, and I don’t know what we’ll be able to save, but at least we got the possessions out of the church and into a storage building.”

Francis figured maybe 15-20 people would show up for church on Sept. 24. He was blessed by the presence of about 60. Services could not be held inside the unsafe shell of the building, so Francis preached a simple message out of Acts 2:46 on how the early church was in one accord.

“I said, ‘That’s what we have to be,’” Francis said. “‘We have to come together in one accord and know that this is what God has done for us.’ Even in our human error of saying ‘Why,’ we know that God has a better plan.”

A Missouri Baptist Disaster Relief worker named Sharon Hadler, a member of First Baptist Church, Perryville, snapped a photograph of the Bethlehem church members doing all that they knew how to do in the open air that day to hold their congregation together.

“The church is what you see standing there in a circle, holding hands and saying, ‘We are in one accord, we are doing what God wants us to do,’” Francis said.

The pastor was struck by how positive everyone who came to church that day seemed to be. He cited the upbeat testimony of one deacon, who commented, “Well, I have a few loose bricks, but I know that God’s going to put them all back together somehow or another.” Francis finished the story.

“His house is just simply a rubble of bricks,” he said. “That’s all it is.”

The tornado was so bad that Gov. Matt Blunt felt compelled to visit Crosstown on Sept. 26 to view the destruction and ensure that the state is doing its part to help the area rebound. Missouri Baptist Convention (MBC) Executive Director David Clippard met with Francis in the community Sept. 29 and presented him with a $1,000 check, as well as financial help for the families who lost their homes. But while property loss was severe, there were no serious injuries or deaths, Francis noted.

The spirit of the church—the people, not the building—is strong.

“We’re going to rebuild in Crosstown,” Francis said. “We’ve already outgrown our children’s church. We knew that we were going to have to do something. God just answered prayers before we prayed for them.

“We didn’t expect it this way, but now we can build us a fellowship hall big enough to have a children’s church that will seat 50-100 kids. There are just blessings there that we didn’t expect.”