Even though Thurman (Iowa) United Methodist Church is barely standing today, it likely saved the lives of a young mother, father and three children April 14 as they huddled in its basement while a tornado took out most of the town.
"We decided we are a community church, we are open to our community and we are not going to lock our doors. Well today, that decision may have saved lives," said the Rev. Jaye Johnson, pastor of Thurman, as the community gathered Sunday afternoon to celebrate and pray after morning services were cancelled.
Ninety percent of the town is damaged, but no one was killed or even injured, said Johnson. It was three years ago that the congregation made the decision to leave the church doors unlocked.
The family that found shelter in the church's basement lived in a modular home. "If they would have found the doors locked &ellipsis; we could have been looking at casualties, no doubt. We are quite grateful they found their way into the church," Johnson said.
More than 120 twisters were spotted in Nebraska, Kansas, Oklahoma and Iowa during weekend storms. The National Weather Service started warning residents from Kansas to Minnesota 24 hours in advance about dangerous weather heading that way.
The only deaths occurred in Woodward, Okla., where six people died, including a father and two children in a trailer and two people in cars. The sixth person died in a Woodward hospital.
The Rev. Joe Harris, assistant to the bishop and communications director in the Oklahoma Annual (regional) Conference, said no churches or parsonages have reported any damage in the Woodward area. However, the homes of church members were damaged or destroyed.
Even though the Kansas Annual Conference office was in the path of a tornado that caused extensive damage in Wichita, no deaths or damage to homes or churches have been reported, said Lisa Elliott Diehl, Kansas area communications director.
Johnson said there is water damage in the walls and ceiling of the church in Thurman.
"My board chair, who happens to be a contractor, said he didn't think we would be able to put it back in usable order," Johnson said. The homes of three members of the church were destroyed.
Johnson said 900 volunteers were in town Sunday helping to clear debris. While it's too early to tell what will happen to the church structure, Johnson believes the church will continue to be a nucleus for the community.
"We are the only church in town, so a lot of people claim us as their church."
*Gilbert is a multimedia reporter for the young adult content team at United Methodist Communications, Nashville, Tenn. The Rev. Arthur McClanahan, director of communications for the Iowa Annual (regional) Conference provided the audio report from the Rev. Jaye Johnson.
News media contact: Kathy L. Gilbert, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.