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Survivors grateful after tornado tears through Missouri church
A highway sign sits in a parking lot at Lambert-St. Louis International Airport
April 23rd, 2011
06:02 PM ET

Survivors grateful after tornado tears through Missouri church

By Greg Botelho and Phil Gast, CNN

(CNN) –"Tear down this temple, and I will rebuild it in three days," Jesus said.

Following those words, pastor Stacy Garner pressed pause on "The Passion of the Christ," then told the dozens of people watching the movie at Ferguson Christian Church to head into the basement. A tornado, he feared, was on its way.

Within two minutes, the twister arrived - part of what the National Weather Service called a "tornadic supercell" that swept through the greater St. Louis metropolitan area Friday evening. And it didn't spare the church in Ferguson, about 10 miles north of the city and three miles east of the St. Louis Lambert airport, which also got hit hard.

Yet all those at the church that night survived. So, too, did a silver cross depicting Jesus' crucifixion, which was untouched in an otherwise ravaged auditorium, while a portable cross brought out specially for the Passion weekend - the time between Good Friday and Easter, which are among the most special times on the Christian calendar - laid on its side, intact.

"There were so many ways the Lord has taken care of us," said church member Nancy Doggett.

She was among roughly 35 people, which is about half the church's congregation, who were spending their Good Friday night in the auditorium watching Mel Gibson's 2004 film depicting the final days of Jesus. Nearby, a group of children saw another film.

All the while, the weather became a growing concern. Minutes after one church member's wife sent a text about the powerful system rolling through, Garner's wife called him to report a tornado was heading toward Ferguson. Noticing a series of powerful lightning strikes, the pastor said he knew this wasn't a typical thunderstorm.

So the pastor paused the movie just at the part when - according to the New Testament - Jesus told the high priests, who were trying him, that if they "tear down this temple ... I will rebuild it in three days."

Some Christian scholars have interpreted this statement to mean Jesus was referring not to a religious building, but more as a vow that he would be resurrected three days after his death, on what is now Easter. Garner simply called the timing - in light of what happened next - a "very interesting coincidence."

The pastor said he then told the audience they needed to seek shelter in the basement.

"As soon as they got out, the electricity went out," said Garner.

Soon thereafter, Doggett said she felt "this vacuum and then there was so much noise." She yelled out for everyone to get under the tables.

The pastor recalled his ears popping and pulsating, the sound of wood boards ripping off above them, at least three or four loud bangs, then water streaming down the stairs the church members had just descended.

It was all over in 10 seconds.

Eventually, Garner, Doggett and others viewed what was left of the church. Besides the two crosses, the communion table hadn't moved and a few heavy beams remained in place. But everywhere else, there was destruction.

"The roof is all over the neighborhood," Doggett said.

The surrounding area was also devastated, with the pastor describing it as "pretty much a war zone."

Asked whether Ferguson Christian could rebuild in three days, Garner said, "We wish we could." What happens physically for the church - founded in 1949 and at its present location for several decades - remains a question for another day, he said.

Its members will have a place to celebrate Easter and beyond, though, after being offered space by the president of nearby St. Louis Christian College.

Garner said he's still trying to figure out what he will say at that first service back. But however horrible Friday's disaster was for the community and the church structure itself, he said he's most grateful that everyone was able to walk away unscathed.

"To have this kind of damage, we're just glad no one was hurt," he said. "Buildings can be replaced, but lives cannot."

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Belief • Christianity • Church • Faith Now

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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.