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May 8th, 2011
12:01 AM ET

In the heart of tornado-ravaged Bama Nation, a new battle cry: ‘Let go! Let God!’

By Wayne Drash, CNN

Tuscaloosa, Alabama (CNN) – The Rev. Kelvin Croom walks down the hall toward the sanctuary his father built 30 years ago with the help of legendary Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

“Just glad to be alive,” a deacon says.

“I know what you mean,” Croom responds.

With its painted cement block walls and low ceilings, the hall has the feel of a locker room corridor. In rooms off the hall, church members rummage through debris, trying to salvage anything they can. Windows shattered when the tornado hit. The roof of the fellowship hall upstairs blew off and crashed into nearby homes.

On Easter Sunday, three days before the tornado struck, Croom preached of salvation, of the need to rebuild one’s life, of finding hope even in times of desperation. The rejoicing and the stomps of feet had the pews bouncing.

The place oozed with love. So many people packed the church they literally filled the building to its rafters, with people standing all the way upstairs in the fellowship hall.

Back in the church for the first time since that service, Croom steps through the doorway into that sacred spot, the sanctuary of College Hill Baptist Church. His voice draws to a hush. The crimson carpet, the pews with their crimson cushions, the stained glass windows – everything is untouched.

“In here, you’d have no idea anything happened,” he marvels.

On April 27, a mile-wide tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, one of nearly 200 twisters to strike the South as part of a record storm. Hundreds died, including dozens in this college town – many of whom lived in the area known as Alberta City where College Hill Baptist sits.

The church lies at the center of the damage, as well as at the crossroads of faith, football and Alabama history. In a community where gospel and gridiron are interwoven like a hand-stitched Southern quilt, it all comes together at College Hill Baptist.

The Rev. Kelvin Croom tells his congregation, "We will rebuild!"

The building speaks of history, of a unique bond between two men – one white, one black – at a time when there were few such relationships. While Bryant is revered like no other, it’s Croom’s father, the late Rev. Sylvester Croom Sr., who stands as a pillar of the African-American community in this part of the state.

As a young man, the elder Croom couldn’t attend his hometown college. He couldn’t even step foot into the University of Alabama stadium. He’d stand outside the gate to watch games.

Eventually, though, he became spiritual adviser to Bryant and two other Crimson Tide coaches. He would come to grace the sidelines for years, decked out in his iconic white suit and crimson cowboy hat and boots.

When the elder Croom was starting the church in the 1970s, Bryant gave him a PA system. He gave the pastor money, too, sometimes thousands in cash, sometimes hundreds. “Whatever Dad needed,” Kelvin Croom says.

“He and my dad had a very unique relationship.”

Kelvin and his brother, Sylvester Jr., were among the first African-American football players at Alabama.

And when Gov. George Wallace apologized to Tuscaloosa’s African-American community for his staunch support of segregation and for barring blacks from entering the university, he came to the Croom family. “Will you forgive me?” Wallace asked.

Today, Kelvin Croom surveys the damage outside the church. The parking lot is littered with lumber strewn from homes, roofing tiles and other debris. With the second story gone, he’s not sure the building can be salvaged, even if the sanctuary is OK.

Behind him, a smashed church sign leans to the side, almost like a crooked cross. Two plaques remain intact: one honoring Bryant; the other honoring the elder Croom.

A portrait of the elder Croom survived the tornado.

“We were taught by my dad and we were taught by Coach Bryant, when situations come into your life, obstacles come, then you have to be strong,” Croom says.

“We have to let go what we’re tasting. This is a bitter pill, but God does have his way of resurrecting us. Yeah, we’re hurt … but we can rebuild and come back.”

Last year, his church made green T-shirts with a slogan in the form of a cross: “Let go! Let God!”

“We’ve been wearing the shirts. Now, we gotta live it,” he says. “Now that we have to deal with this calamity, you put aside racial barriers, religious and political. We’re one people. We’re Alabamians.”

He gives a soft holler: “Roll Tide,” the beloved chant of Alabama fans.

“It’s become more than a sports theme,” he says. “It’s a bond between people who have a common interest in humanity, who believe in a democracy, who believe in a higher power. It’s a nation. We call it Bama Nation.”

Across the state, people are mourning. The loss of life and property is indescribable. Thousands of houses across Tuscaloosa alone are damaged or destroyed. Scores of people remain missing.

Faith and football won’t replace the utter destruction that has shaken so many lives here. Yet it’s what people cling to. Conversations with those whose homes were destroyed often end with “Roll Tide.”

Last year the church made "Let go! Let God!" T-shirts. "We’ve been wearing the shirts. Now, we gotta live it," Croom says.

In the fall, they say, the sanctuary on Saturdays is Bryant-Denny Stadium, where more than 100,000 fans gather in the heart of campus to cheer for the Crimson Tide. On Sundays, the place of worship is any of the hundreds of churches throughout this thick Bible Belt region where Saturday’s chants are replaced by prayers and gospels.

It’s why a chemistry professor from Germany says, “The holy man in Alabama is not the pope. It’s Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.” Outside Croom’s torn up church, a military policeman put aside his allegiance to cross-state rival Auburn University to protect the property from looters.

“I’m an Auburn fan,” says Sgt. Casey Chambers, “but above that I’m a true Alabamian.”

A handgun at his hip, Chambers says through a big grin, “I’m protecting y’all.”

'How we come together'

Terry Jones is the legendary noseguard who played for the Crimson Tide in the mid-1970s and went on to play for the NFL’s Green Bay Packers.

Now a strength coach at Alabama, Jones was in the team’s practice facility when the tornado ripped through Tuscaloosa. An announcement came over the PA system for everyone to take cover.

He rounded the corner into his office. On his wall, Bear Bryant looked down. Jones stared back at the man who shaped his life, one of five mentors who molded him.

“Where you thinking of going to school?” Bryant had asked him on a recruiting trip.

“South Carolina,” Jones told him.

Bad choice, Bryant said. “All you’ll do is play football, and you’ll lose all your games. What’s your second choice?”

When Jones responded with the University of Tennessee, Bryant leaned over. “You can go there,” the coach said, “but we’re going to kick your ass every year.”

Alabama strength coach and former NFL star Terry Jones weathered the storm at the Crimson Tide’s practice facility.

Jones became an All-American playing for Bryant. Yet, he says, he also owes much of his success to another man: the elder Rev. Croom.

Jones, who started playing for Alabama in 1974, remembered a story he heard from his older teammates. In 1973, the Crimson Tide was about to play Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl. The black players for both schools planned to sit out the game to send a civil rights statement across the nation.

Bryant phoned his spiritual adviser: Get to New Orleans and mediate the situation. The Rev. Sylvester Croom gathered the athletes.

“This is an opportunity for you to showcase your talents and get to the next level, the NFL. Don’t jeopardize that,” the elder Croom said. “You’re the pride of the black community. Don’t let us down!”

Everyone suited up. The game went on. (Alabama fans don’t like to talk about the outcome; the Crimson Tide lost 24-23 on a field goal in the last five minutes, but the team still won the national title that year.)

All that went through Jones’ mind as he hunkered down in his office, the storm overhead. The 6-4, 320-pound giant owed his life to both those men. If the elder Croom hadn’t given that speech to the black players who preceded him, his career could have been over before it started. If Bryant hadn’t switched him to noseguard his senior year, he might never have starred with the Packers.

Bryant made his players attend church. He ingrained it in them: Football and faith help shape a boy into a man. Jones now serves as a deacon at College Hill Baptist Church.

Legendary Alabama football coach Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant mentored Jones and helped the elder Croom start his church.

In his office that day, he reflected on a quote from Bryant: “If you believe in yourself and have dedication and pride and never quit, you’ll be a winner. The price of victory is high, but so are the rewards.”

Life has been good to him, thought Jones, a small-town boy from Sandersville, Georgia, who broke racial barriers and crushed many a lineman along the way.

Jones braced for the worst. The wind whipped outside. The tornado missed his building.

“Every Saturday, I’ve seen how we come together – the football and the religion,” he says. “This storm, I think, brought everything together right here.”

Sermons in the barber chair

Clee Greene no longer walks with that pep in his step from when he first arrived in Tuscaloosa in 1960. He got off the back of the bus from Louisiana with a “dollar and quarter” in his pocket and has never looked back.

He’s now got a bridge named after him in Alberta City.

While Bryant brought black players to Tuscaloosa to play football, it was Greene who helped shape them into men. The barber on the other side of the railroad tracks would sit the young kids in his chair and preach to them about life and love, God and unity.

Clee Greene was barber and counselor to nearly every black University of Alabama football player for decades.

Nearly every black football player from the 1970s through the 1990s, from Terry Jones to NFL Hall of Famer Derrick Thomas, sought haircuts and counseling from him. At 73, he remains a father figure to Jones. “If you got nothing to do, you just go to Clee’s,” Jones says outside the shop. “He’s an institution.”

A pious man with veins that bleed Crimson Tide and Bible scripture, Greene says the tornado looked like the devil when it came through. “It began to make a tail,” he says in an accent as thick as sorghum. “It went up in the air, like it had arms and shoulders.”

Electricity poles snapped with gigantic flashes. The tornado screamed, and his house shook. “A train is coming in,” his granddaughter said as they huddled in a hallway.

“That’s not a train,” he told her.

Remarkably, his house is one of the few in Alberta City that wasn’t harmed. He runs his barbershop out of his house. He gives away more haircuts than he sells.

Sitting in his barber chair amid Crimson Tide memorabilia, he says God is trying to send a message with the tornado: “He wants us to get back to loving each other.”

It’s kind of like football, he says: “You got to dig down deep inside yourself and pull yourself up.”

What sustains him now amid such destruction?

Faith for one, he says.

The other? Well, Greene decides to demonstrate. He leaps from his barber chair and searches through his belongings. He pulls out a stuffed elephant, the Alabama mascot known as Big Al.

Terry Jones, left, and Clee Greene belt out the chant of Crimson Tide fans.

He presses a button. The elephant grinds its hips to the tune of the Alabama fight song. Greene places his nose to his shoulder and throws his arm into the air, like it’s an elephant trunk.

With Terry Jones at his side, Greene begins to belt out that iconic chant. The legendary noseguard joins in: ROLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLLL TIDE ROLL!

'We will rebuild'

Standing at the altar on the Sunday after the storm, Croom dabs the sweat from his brow with a white coach’s towel. Dozens in his flock lost their homes when the tornado gutted Tuscaloosa. Many lost friends and loved ones.

Tears and hugs, singing and rejoicing punctuate the service. The University Church of Christ volunteered space for members of College Hill Baptist to worship.

“Just tell somebody I need you to survive,” he preaches. “Tell the person next to you: I pray for you; you pray for me.”

The congregants pause. They share hugs and pleasantries. “Our community has been devastated, but God still lives,” Croom says.

The pastor calls everyone to the altar. More than 200 people huddle together. Some place hands on shoulders; others hold hands.

“Some of us looked death in the face. Some of us thought it was over in the storm. But God gave us new life,” Croom says. “The flock will not be scattered because of this storm. College Hill still stands. We’re here today!”

“Some will say the church is over there,” Croom booms, pointing toward the tattered building across town.

He then points at members of the congregation: “No, the church is where you go! And you go! And you go! … That’s where the church is!”

Kelvin Croom walks down the hall of his church; many members of his congregation lost friends and loved ones.

He preaches for more than an hour. A woman sings "Amazing Grace":

Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,
That saved a wretch like me.
I once was lost, but now am found,
Was blind, but now I see.

Croom implores the congregation to volunteer, to help thy neighbor. The church was planning a complete renovation before the storm. Maybe, Croom says, the tornado is a warning to be careful what you ask for. Now, they have no choice but to rebuild.

“Lord, I will serve you forever,” Croom hollers. “We will rebuild! We will rebuild! God bless you! God bless you!”

And in true Alabama fashion, he ends with the two words that have brought people here together for decades: “Roll Tide!”

CNN’s Sarah Hoye contributed to this piece.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Alabama • Baptist • Belief • Church • God • Houses of worship • Pastors • Prayer

soundoff (600 Responses)
  1. Jim Davis

    Anti-Christians are SO CLEVER !! They are smarter than all the deepest Thinkers that ever lived, and who Believed in God, all over the Earth !! Imagine.... and not only that, they make jokes and call names to those Ppl who DO Believe in a Power above themselves. They must feel the need to hurt others, because they are hurting inside. So they lash out at those who find comfort and fulfillment in a way different than they can accept. Or maybe it's just because they can't accept the concept of Faith. Yeah, I think that's the big one. "The Belief in something, or SomeOne regardless of supporting evidence". You know, like, having Faith in your Brother, your Mother, your Father ? I guess if you've been betrayed by one of them, that might be the cause.

    May 8, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
    • pat carr

      Get used to the scorn that we will heap on your horrible cult. Did you really think you can shove this garbage down our throats, change our laws, then get "respect"? The time of christian control of our minds and our nation is coming to a close

      May 8, 2011 at 1:28 pm |
  2. bobster26

    well, time to build your house out of sticks...straw doesn't work to well against gods breath for the sinner's!

    May 8, 2011 at 12:21 pm |
  3. Mike

    Any time I see a story even remotely connected to religious interest, I have a total blast reading the comments you dung heads spew out, as if your opinions or ideas matter to any one.

    May 8, 2011 at 12:17 pm |
  4. DanteX

    Some of the comments here are simply AMAZING.

    May 8, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
  5. Joe the atheist

    We need an atheist church io USA,. We are a formidable bunch and we got money. screw god and his children and his violent prophets, moses and mohammad.

    May 8, 2011 at 12:10 pm |
  6. Razor

    Faith is the opposite of knowledge.

    May 8, 2011 at 12:07 pm |
  7. Razor

    Which god you guys are talking? There are a lot of them.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  8. Justthefacts

    Happy (Bless) are the Dead, for their works are with them, and they do not worry nor bicker over foolish things.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:59 am |
  9. Wolfpack

    Great. I can see where this is going. It's going to be like the Saints a couple years ago. All we're going to hear this coming football season is, "Oh, this city needs this so bad!" or "This team is really coming together for their city" and sob stories like that. I thoroughly despise it when the media tries to turn sports into some kind of human interest bullcrap. It's a shameless effort to try and draw in women viewers and anyone else who normally doesn't give a flip about sports. Disgusting.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:58 am |
    • Russell

      You are a damn moron. Alabama football in the state of Alabama is a 2nd religion. The only thing this city needs is for each neighbor to help each other. While people were dying in Alabama from the tornadoes the media was in London covering a stupid wedding. This story received NO media coverage whatsoever. You just sound like a hater and judging from your screen name your team sucks.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:08 pm |
    • Wolfpack

      Why don't you cry about it some more?

      May 8, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
  10. GAW

    Did any of you 'fundy' atheists commenting here even read the article? It was about a religious community in the south recovering from the tornadoes that ravished the area. (in brief) Some of you guys sound like of Fred Phelps. You will never rally or persuade anyone to your cause by sounding like that. You are no better than the worst of the people you are trying to attack.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:54 am |
    • Wolfpack

      How does one ravish a city? Did the tornado tear open its bodice?

      May 8, 2011 at 12:00 pm |
    • GAW

      OK let's use the phrase "tore through the area" Sorry I can't serve every word to you on a silver platter!!

      May 8, 2011 at 12:34 pm |
    • Wolfpack

      Calm down, boss. It was just a joke.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:47 pm |
  11. LSU fan

    Proud to say God Bless the people of the Bama Nation. I doubt there are any athiest "putting their hand on the ground" any Saturdayafternoon in Tuscaloosa. And like foxholes in time of war, doubt you can find a profession of atheism when those tornados were howling through.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Zachary Anon

      Atheist ex-military here. Also, I was stationed in Ft. Polk. I assumed being an LSU fan that you're in Louisiana as well.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:26 pm |
  12. DANNY

    What evidence do we have that God created the unvierse? The universe (Genesis). It is so complex that only the al-mighty could create it.
    One thing I say for non-believers, if you choose not to believe in God, please understand this: When you die, you are done. You have nothing to live for. Eternal life is the greatest gift from our creator.
    For someone who seeks evidence to believe in God, I say – FAITH

    May 8, 2011 at 11:52 am |
    • Zachary Anon

      Belief in the afterlife is such a silly and immature concept. You will not be able to avenge death no matter how much you assert your religion is the answer to all mankind's mortal issues. It simply is not true.
      You will die and rot like every other hopeful, delusional, scared religious fanatic.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
  13. s kel

    All of the ignorant hatred spewed on here today just reafirms that not only GOD is real but so is a lower being that infiltrates and influnces thoughts regaurdless of the false so called selfprideful so called intellect hate they write on here, I know all of you small minded nonbelivers will rant and try to bash me on this, but the hate is from the devil. Along with GOD it does exist. Sooo GOD bless the people stricken by the storms & the ones thst have that inner storm of hate and nonbelief in them also.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:51 am |
  14. Crimson&White

    Thank you for an inspiring article. This weekend 10,000 volunteers were working in Tuscaloosa. God bless the victims and God bless those who came to help, sent donations and prayed for those who are hurting. Faith in God is alive and well in T-Town.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  15. dodo

    There is no god, plan and simple.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:50 am |
  16. RichardSRussell

    If you just sit back and "let God" do it, you'll be waiting forever. The only progress in this world comes from your fellow human beings, no god necessary. (Good thing, too, because he's not there, never was, and never will be.)

    May 8, 2011 at 11:46 am |
  17. Rtard

    We are making progress at least. I give it another 100 years until most "established" Nations are Atheist or Agnostic. People are slow to adapt, and it's easy to hold on to random fairy tales written by cavemen (who also wrote about the earth being flat in the bible).

    May 8, 2011 at 11:46 am |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Rtard wrote: " I give it another 100 years until most "established" Nations are Atheist or Agnostic. People are slow to adapt, and it's easy to hold on to random fairy tales written by cavemen."

      You're an optimist. There is a great attraction for the intellectually lazy out there to accept simplistic directions for how to run their lives. The birth rate for followers of Islam as well as for those 3rd world countries with a strong religious presence is substantially higher than for those you call "established nations"

      May 8, 2011 at 12:04 pm |
    • Jeff

      Wow Retard! I have spent years studying the Bible and never yet read where it discusses the world being flat?? Please enlighten me on this wonderful new information. Also, I would be very interested in knowing where those caves were in which the Bible was written.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:16 pm |
    • carolyn

      Some of us just prefer to believe in the idea that someone better, smarter and stronger than ourselves is out there watching out for us.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:27 pm |
    • Rtard

      "Their measure is longer than the earth and wider than the sea. (From the NIV Bible, Job 11:9)"

      May 8, 2011 at 12:48 pm |
    • Tran Minh

      GOD is so powerful. GOD should be able to talk to human. However, there is no such thing as GOD talking. There is no proof or disproof needed for a simpe fact.

      May 8, 2011 at 4:13 pm |
  18. Tran Minh

    Just looking at the Middle East and Western countries, It has never been peaceful. Why? There is a conflict between the Bible followers and the Koran followers. In Tibet, why the world still looks the other way without much help for their independence? Tibet is Buddhism nation. While religious can help to deal with your fear from your limited senses, religious can bring the MY religious or MY GOD is a supreme one which would cause war forever.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:40 am |
  19. Johny

    What evidence can you put on the table that there is No God?
    If my church taught that God was an invisible being that was in the sky somewhere then frankly I wouldn't believe in God but thats not what my church teaches or what I believe. Your image of God is flawed. Next time do some research before you put down someones beliefs without knowing what they actually believe in.

    May 8, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • Tran Minh

      Can you talk to him? I mean really not the interpretation from theory, logic, philoshophy or whatever explaination.

      May 8, 2011 at 11:43 am |
    • Jeebus

      Try this:
      Do you believe in the gods Thor, Baal, or Zeus?

      If not, can you produce any evidence that they don't exist?

      May 8, 2011 at 11:51 am |
    • Tran Minh

      JeeBus! Try this: You can not talk to him because no him to talk.

      May 8, 2011 at 11:53 am |
    • Mike

      How do you provide the evidence for the non-existence of something? How could you disprove that I don't have an invisible floating turkey above my head? This begs the statement,"A position on an argument that can't be refuted is a weak argument."

      May 8, 2011 at 12:14 pm |
    • john

      i have gotten proof of Gods existence. Problem is, you guys want to use that to make you believe. it doesnt work like that.why do you want to believe in God based on my proof? proof is so biased, subjective anyway. If i saw a ghost lets say, and told you; with your disposition theres no way you would ever believe me. so what would be the point of asking for proof?

      May 8, 2011 at 12:24 pm |
    • Tran Minh

      John, it is so simple that you can communicate directlty to me so I can call you John.

      May 8, 2011 at 4:04 pm |
  20. isaac

    if all of you guys are just going to hate on god why are you even commenting

    May 8, 2011 at 11:36 am |
    • steveM

      Its hard to believe in this day and age with all the libraries of world in our iphones that the myths of god, jesus, Santa Claus, the easter bunny, allah, Thor, Moses persist? Brainwashing of children leads to nasty consequences. The onus is on the "believer" to provide proof of god or Santa Claus, not the unbeliever. Religion is a scam. I encourage everyone to do the research.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:03 pm |
    • Jeff

      It's so amusing that atheists talk about all this research, but none of them provide any of it. I suppose that they are merely accepting what another atheist says who accepted what another said and so on.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:11 pm |
    • john

      stevem, you shouldnt comment on things you dont understand. Are you aware of how many scientists and logical people believe in some higher power? people who talk like you do simply havent spent the time to research the depths of 'why?' and it makes you look and sound ignorant. I really dont mean for that to come off sounding like im being rude, but please consider it. These matters are deep and people need to invest themselves into the search.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:28 pm |
    • Neil

      God is good. 🙂 It's too bad all the small minded liberals are so incredibly closed minded.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:30 pm |
    • Believer

      @SteveM, as I am believer and a scientist it is my responsibility to prove that God doesn’t exist not that he does exist. Research has not been able to prove my hypothesis in the existence of God as false. And for those who have had to deal with trying times and give account to their Faith in the Lord as having assisted them mentally to overcome obstacles by no way shows evidence that God does not exist. I now ask what gives you strength when things go unexpected in your life? Perhaps, it will provide some evidence.

      May 8, 2011 at 12:43 pm |
    • Dorianmode

      @Believer,
      Pascal's Wager again. We're so over than one on these boards.

      May 8, 2011 at 2:02 pm |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.