The pulpit of the Open Door Baptist Church lay shattered amid rubble during the Easter sunrise service on Sunday, destroyed along with the rest of the building by a monster tornado.
But hundreds of worshipers who gathered in the church's debris-strewn parking lot only four days after the deadly storm still heard a message of rebirth, love and healing.There were tears and hugs in the predawn chill. There was also laughter - something pastor Rick Cooper made sure of by telling a couple of jokes about the destruction.
"There's a time to cry," said Cooper, standing on the remains of a concrete wall and before a wooden cross hung from an exposed steel girder. "But let me tell you: Life is important."
Sixty-nine people huddled inside a central hallway as the Open Door church was demolished Wednesday night by a tornado with winds exceeding 260 mph. Everyone walked out alive, with the most seriously injured being 11-year-old Janna Presley, whose badly cut right arm needed 80 stitches.
"I'm doing better," the girl said shyly, a Mickey Mouse jacket over the big sling that cradled her arm.
"It's a blessing and a miracle God was with them," said Janie Morgan,
who attends the church.
Thirty-three people were killed and more than 160 others were injured when tornadoes marauded across three counties around Birmingham. Seven more people were killed by other tornadoes in the South.
"The healing process has to start, and what better time to start than Easter morning," said the Rev. Terry Hill, a United Methodist minister who read the names of victims during services at the neighboring Open Door. "We are here to have a new beginning."Funerals that began Saturday continued on Easter day. One followed the worship service at Rock Creek Church of God, which lost six members, including a mother and two sons killed in the collapse of a nearby house.
Rock Creek had its own miracle story: 20 children and four adults walked out unharmed after the tornado destroyed the church's adjacent gymnasium. But there was little of the laughter at Rock Creek that marked the sunrise service at Open Door.
Normally joyous hymns about Jesus' resurrection dragged, and the mood during the worship service was as dark as the sanctuary, which still lacked power and doubled as a makeshift emergency room the night of the twister. Plastic covered the colored-glass windows.
"Father, we're experiencing a little of the pain and suffering you experienced years ago and overcame," church leader Von Stephens said in the morning prayer.
As she held her 1-year-old son outside in the sunshine, lifelong member Charlotte Snow said it's going to take awhile for the joy to return.
"I think everybody's still in shock," Snow said.