• Though a tornado destroyed Dodson Chapel United Methodist Church, its child care ministry lives on at nearby Hermitage United Methodist Church.
• Dodson Chapel’s sanctuary had stood for 114 years and hosted a dwindling number of worshippers in the years before the 2020 tornado.
• After the storm, the congregation decided that restoring glory to a demolished church was less important to them than saving their chief ministry: the child care program.
The tornado that destroyed Dodson Chapel United Methodist Church and its child care center in the pitch-black morning of March 3, 2020, would be described by meteorologists and insurance companies as an “act of God.”
But the child care center’s resurrection 18 months after the storm — under a slightly different name and church umbrella — is considered God’s will by those who united to clear a spiritual and literal path through the rubble to a new facility.
Dodson Chapel’s “big sister” church, the nearby Hermitage United Methodist, houses the new child care center, which reopened Sept. 13.
“It is certainly an example of how God’s will is intertwined,” said Joey Parker, Hermitage United Methodist’s executive director, who began working with Dodson Chapel a year or so before the tornado, as part of his church’s efforts to keep alive the rich history and ministry of the aging congregation.
Dodson Chapel’s roots were deep, going back to 1812. The sanctuary ripped apart by the tornado — the lot since has been cleared — had stood for 114 years and hosted a dwindling number of worshippers in the years before the disaster.
In 2019, when Dodson’s pastor retired and with the congregation totaling about 20 active members, the Hermitage church dispatched its associate pastor, the Rev. Tommy Shelton, to fill the pulpit.
Shelton was at Dodson on Sunday mornings, but he had other flocks to tend during the week: He’s recovery minister at Hermitage United Methodist and also on the Mt. Juliet Police force.
During that time, Parker, with the help of Shelton and others at the Hermitage church, tried to stabilize the old church’s financial and ministerial needs.
“I kind of became their pastor,” Parker said. “My wife and family started attending church there on Sunday morning. I began falling in love with the church and the wonderful group of people there.”
After the storm, the congregation decided that restoring glory to a demolished church was less important to them than saving their chief ministry: the child care that had played such a big role in the lives of families in their section of Middle Tennessee.
So instead of rebuilding the sanctuary, the Dodson Chapel members elected to take the nearly $2 million they would get from the insurance settlement and proposed sale of the property and endow the future of the child care ministry.
The Rev. Chris Seifert, Hermitage’s lead pastor, explained that the “mostly elderly congregation” at Dodson looked at their options and realized that coming back together as a church was something they didn’t feel they were capable of doing.
“Their leadership voted that they felt like it was best to close down and not exist as an official church of the Methodist Church anymore,” he said. “They said, ‘we would like our legacy to continue on as the child care.’”
Even before the tornado, things were mostly quiet on the Dodson campus on Sundays, but it was a different story on weekdays. A steady stream of moms and dads rolled to the church to drop their children off in the mornings and pick them up at night.
The Dodson child care program had earned its reputation through hard work and large hearts, serving infants and children through age 12, whether their families could afford it or not. They also provided before- and after-school care and transportation for children at nearby elementary schools, as well as snacks and lunch to full-time students.
Parker said the ministry tended to about 150 children, some on state vouchers.
“We were one of the few child care centers that was accepting vouchers,” said Pam Robinson, co-director of the school.
Robinson, who has been with the program for 28 years, and most of the former staff returned to work at the new center, now called Dodson Chapel Childcare at Hermitage United Methodist Church. Some of them had found other jobs in the interim, but they came back to proudly help resurrect the ministry.
Parents — like Julie Fritz, whose two children were enrolled in the program years before — are happy to see the quality of the old center flourishing in the new locale.
“They were one of the best daycares in the area. As a parent, when I walked in, it gave me a good feeling,” said Fritz, a Metro elementary art teacher whose children, after finding alternate care for 18 months, are now back at the new facility.
She noted that, “it left a big, big void” when the tornado destroyed the center. “Sometimes, you don’t have the knowledge of how good it was until you don’t have it anymore."
“We grieved over the loss,” Robinson said. “(But) I knew in my heart that God had a big plan, it was bigger and better than we imagined. God was faithful to us.”
Seifert said he’s happy his church could be there for the Dodson congregation.
“I’m glad they felt they could trust us,” he said.
He recalls the “hard, hard night” that he got the phone call informing him of the tragedy.
Seifert first came to the Hermitage church to see if it was OK before making his way to Dodson Chapel, but the police were there, stopping people.
‘“I’m one of the pastors of that church,’ I told police officers. I was told, ‘I’m sorry, sir, that church is gone.’ I lost my supper. Any time you see someone’s spiritual home become rubble like that, it’s very emotional. I was physically ill.”
Parker met Shelton and Robinson in the disaster zone.
“There was such devastation in the area,” he said. “It was totally black out there, since there was no power. From the houses across the street, we heard people screaming and crying out for loved ones. …
“Pastor Tommy (Shelton) had a police spotlight. When he shined it on the church, your heart just sank, because here was a church that was over 100 years old, and it was just ruined. The walls were all gone. I’m still kind of speechless to describe the feeling.
“I thought, ‘What now, Lord?’ … When we got to see it in the daylight, Pam and I stood there in the rain with Pastor Tommy and just embraced each other.”
Parker said he also thanked the Lord that there were no children, teachers or staff in the building when the tornado struck.
“If it had been during the day, I shudder to think of the casualties,” he said.
Dodson’s ministries didn’t end with the destruction. Somehow, the food pantry trailer near the old church survived with just a broken window. Church members busied themselves there, providing food and other necessities to the paralyzed neighborhood while their future as a congregation was in the balance.
The Rev. Scott Aleridge, Cumberland River District superintendent, was in discussions with the Dodson Chapel congregational leaders, listening and helping discern the future of the ministry.
He said he asked a group of mostly widows to name their hopes and dreams for the church and identify its most important ministry.
‘“Why did God put this on us to decide?’ one lady said. I said, ‘Because God has trusted in you to do his kingdom’s work,’” Aleridge said. “They decided the most important thing for their legacy and the kingdom of God was the children.”
The joy grows in Parker’s voice when he talks about what has transpired in the months since he stood amid the desolation to today. Dodson Chapel’s church is gone, but its childcare ministry thrives.
“It was God’s timing. It’s God’s story,” he said. “This is living testimony.”
Ghianni is a freelance writer in Nashville, Tennessee.
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