BEAUREGARD, Ala. (AP) — The pastor of a church that became a center for shelter, help and grieving when a tornado killed 23 people in eastern Alabama said in his first Sunday service after the storm that the Lord has reached out his hand to the community.
Imperfect things like tornadoes and other tragedies happen because we live in an imperfect world, Providence Baptist Church Pastor Rusty Sowell said Sunday.
His sermon focused on the Bible verse Isaiah 41:13: "For I am the Lord your God who takes hold of your right hand and says to you, Do not fear; I will help you."
Nearly 100 people safely rode out the March 3 storm in the church, which then because a center for donations and the place where Sowell and the county coroner told families they had lost loved ones.
This Sunday, 23 crosses sat outside the country church, one for each victim of the huge EF4 tornado that roared through Beauregard a few hours after last Sunday's services with 170 mph (270 kph) and a path nearly a mile (1.6 kilometers) wide.
As she sat in a pew, Sunday, Cindy Samford said all her emotions hit her suddenly. She lost her home in the storm hours after last week's service.
"I'm heartbroken by the loss of lives and the devastation of it all. Today in church was a confirmation of faith that God was watching over us. God has his hands on us," Samford said.
President Donald Trump visited the church Friday as he looked at the damage, signing Bibles for some victims there seeking help.
Sowell said it was easy to speak badly about the president and wondered if some of the critics owned Bibles.
"My first thought is if that is what you are worried about, bring your raggedy self down here to our corner of the world and get to work," Sowell said to applause from the packed congregation. "The ones that are running their mouths are not down here getting their hand dirty, walking alongside the walking wounded."
But most of Sowell's sermon was how God reaches out his hand in times of need. He talked about how the church built a second building across the street with showers, a full kitchen and a large gathering space after the area was devastated by Hurricane Opal in 1995 and could not get help.
That building became the center of the relief efforts after the tornado.
"This is why this building is here," Sowell said. "And God knew."
Carolyn Thrower said being at Providence Baptist this Sunday was awe inspiring, knowing they were helping to show God's love and healing.
"Church always helps, but today it was a special blessing," she said.
Supplies continue to pour into the church, and Sowell said he was amazed at the generosity of people, even if Providence Baptist was dealing with a problem many places face after a disaster — too much donated water and clothing.
"Please we don't need any more," Sowell said of the thousands of cases of water and bags of clothes. "In fact, everyone here gets to carry home a case of water."
Freelance photographer Vasha Hunt contributed to this story from Beauregard, Alabama.