Two Kentucky Congregations Unite Amid Wreckage of Their Churches

by Jennifer Shea

On Christmas Eve, in an empty lot brightly lit by generator-powered lights, two Kentucky congregations gathered to mark the closing of two buildings destroyed by a tornado, but not the closing of two ministries.

“I’ve said all week, your pastor has said all week, you see what’s standing on this parking lot,” said Dr. Milton West, a senior pastor at First Christian Church, the Lexington Herald-Leader reports. “This is the church right here. We will stop and we will shed a tear, but we will also see this as an opportunity. An opportunity to rise from the ashes of the loss of a building, to reclaim our place in this community and to bring our understanding of faith to succeeding generations.”

West then led both congregations in a rendition of “Silent Night” as the wind whipped around them, jostling nearby piles of debris.

Kentucky Congregations Vow to Continue Worship

On a small table draped in white linen, Renie Barger, whose husband is the pastor at Mayfield First Presbyterian Church, had placed a beaten-up cross, one of the few items salvaged from the remains of their church.

“We found it in there today,” Barger told the Herald-Leader.

The Christmas Eve service took place as the sunset in downtown Mayfield, Kentucky. The congregations of First Christian Church and First Presbyterian Church joined together right in between the ruins of their respective houses of worship. All told, roughly 100 people showed up to worship in the empty lot.

The service came two weeks after a vicious tornado leveled buildings in the area and killed more than 80 people in the state. It spared nothing in its path, not even churches that had served as spiritual anchors for generations.

“Part of this service is to give you an opportunity to grieve and to say goodbye to a building where you have worshiped for many, many years,” West told the gathered congregants.

West then launched into Scripture readings and communion, followed by the liturgy for closing a building. Together, they bid farewell to the baptismal fonts, communion tables, pulpits and worship spaces, while vowing to continue their ministries.

“What lies ahead for both congregations will be one of the most challenging things you will ever undertake, and if we do it together, it will last,” West added.

Tornadoes Flattened Entire Towns

More than 30 tornadoes ripped through Kentucky and Southern Illinois in mid-December, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The federal government announced a state of emergency in Kentucky in their wake. And the Kentucky National Guard sent 300 guardsmen out across nine counties, per USA Today.   

“We’re going to have over 1,000 homes that are just gone,” Gov. Andy Beshear said at a news conference. “I don’t think we’ve had damage at this scale ever.” Among the dead were two of Beshear’s own relatives, according to USA Today.

Kentucky itself weathered at least four tornadoes. But the state did not make it through without some casualties. Lives were lost and homes were destroyed. At least in the case of those two churches, the congregants can rebuild.