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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. Showmetheproof

    Not to say, The Bible is correct.I believe people during those times had to make sense of things and they married unexplainable fiction with unprovable facts. But Things do not create themselves. You need a Creator/Sculptor/Architect/Chemist at least a Chef. and some raw materials.

    May 8, 2011 at 10:24 pm |
  2. gogogopher

    Bible is false. Unless you believe The Lord killed 42 CHILDREN with two bears as in the story in 2nd Kings.

    Jesus killed kids? Yup..... "The Lord is my Shepherd..." sent two bears to maul kids. Christians... come on, really?

    The prophet prayed...."Lord....help me... they make fun of my bald head..." So Lord Jesus/Allah/Abrahamic God/yewhaw sends bears to do the job.

    Jesus killed kids but you never hear that one in Sunday school class.... they draw pics of Jesus with kids on his knees....

    May 8, 2011 at 10:07 pm |
  3. Bruce

    I tire of those who despise God and despise religious expression who think that for some reason it is their duty and life calling to continually spout the childish and ignorant doggerel that is so predictable. Why do you feel you must comment? You are so boring and predictable.

    This article was great, and I truly feel sorry for people who have no heart, no feeling for anything bigger than the 13-inch screen that is the human mind.

    May 8, 2011 at 10:05 pm |
  4. Dragonfire

    Buddha?

    May 8, 2011 at 9:37 pm |
  5. Showmetheproof

    Evolution.Right.... What did the Platypus evolve from?

    May 8, 2011 at 9:35 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Showmetheproof asked: "What did the Platypus evolve from?"

      I don't know... Do you think the platypus took a wrong turn getting off Noah's ark? BTW, where did your god come from?

      May 8, 2011 at 9:44 pm |
  6. The Amazing Criswell

    The best slogan, from the not-too-distant future: "God? What's a God?"

    And when told: "Did people actually believe that?!?! Really?!?!?!

    May 8, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  7. The Amazing Criswell

    The best slogan, from the not-too-distant future: "God? What's a God?"

    And when told: "Did people actually believe that?!?! Really?!?!?!?!

    May 8, 2011 at 9:14 pm |
  8. RaKa

    Trying to prove to an atheist that there is a God is about as pointless as someone trying to prove to me that there is a such thing as a atheist. If you don't believe, you don't believe and there is nothing anyone can do about it.

    May 8, 2011 at 9:08 pm |
  9. Pastor Evans

    Jesus Christ is with you Bama from VA!!!

    May 8, 2011 at 8:46 pm |
  10. Observer

    @Keith,

    It's from the New American Standard Bible. There's over 20 English versions of the Bible. Can Christians tell us which is the CORRECT one?

    May 8, 2011 at 7:56 pm |
    • tim Ricard

      All of them are effectively correct, If there is an issue/conflict one can always go back to the Greek...

      May 8, 2011 at 8:15 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      "one can always go back to the Greek"

      Just like Ee mama cheena...

      May 8, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  11. Only in Alabama

    Wow, even almost 30 years after he died, Bryant's mythical image still gets polished. This is an amazing puff piece. Bryant was hardly the "saintly" man that this article would have you believe. If he had to coach under the rules of today, he'd be mediocre. He wouldn't be able to cheat so rampantly, and I doubt his drinking and womanizing would have been kept under wraps. It's insane the way he is worshipped, given the reality of the man.

    May 8, 2011 at 7:01 pm |
  12. kdog

    All this talk about believing in God as illogical reminds me of one of the greatest "logical" minds of the enlightenment, Blaise Pascal. He was a scientist, physicist and mathematician who formulated a mathematical formula citing the benefits of believing in God. Go read him.

    May 8, 2011 at 7:00 pm |
    • tim Ricard

      And Newton and Michael Faraday, Bacon etc.

      May 8, 2011 at 8:13 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Yes... and the level of scientific knowledge at the time was certainly high... (I suppose it was high compared to the level that existed at the time the bible, gospels, Qur'an, etc. were contrived...)

      May 8, 2011 at 8:25 pm |
  13. paul

    Jesus: if the world hate you, ye know that it hated me, before it hated you.Jn. 15:18

    May 8, 2011 at 6:49 pm |
  14. :) :)

    It is so cute how you guys think you are going to once and for all establish the undeniable truth behind the universe by arguing it on a CNN discussion board.

    May 8, 2011 at 6:46 pm |
    • jefe

      Now that is an awesome comment. The arguing is a true waste of time. Being prepared to make a reasoned defense for the hope that is within us should be seasoned with repeated readings of Matthew 7:6... 🙂

      May 8, 2011 at 8:21 pm |
  15. frank

    I like how Jesus's disciples, who lived with him, and saw him in all his glory, were so convinced he was the messiah that they ran away when the cops came like a bunch of tweakers. Lol...

    May 8, 2011 at 6:38 pm |
    • airwx

      Your argument would be valid if the disciples understood the whole messiah thing before the "laying in the tomb" thing. Would you run away if a bunch of thugs came into your "hood and started shooting up the place? Would you be distraught at seeing your best friend killed? And what would you call it if you later see your friend alive? Who would you think he was? Just a thought.....

      May 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • tim Ricard

      Yet all but one died with the gospel on their lips after being tortured beyound what we can imagine. This fact is enough for me to believe. Are you will to live through torture to maintain your believes

      May 8, 2011 at 8:07 pm |
    • RaKa

      Always when those who don't believe or read the bible try to preach it. lol, lol.

      May 8, 2011 at 9:02 pm |
    • RaKa

      insert "entertaining"

      May 8, 2011 at 9:03 pm |
  16. Shaneeda Quit

    LET GO OF GOD!

    May 8, 2011 at 6:37 pm |
    • Edward

      why?

      May 8, 2011 at 6:44 pm |
    • PraiseTheLard

      Well, you have to outgrow your infantile security blanket or Teddy Bear some time in your life...

      May 8, 2011 at 6:50 pm |
    • Edward

      I'm not sure what you mean by that? Are you saying that God is some sort of imaginary security blanket? Hmmm, what evidence do you have for that claim? Or are you just taking a jab at my beliefs because you feel that yours are far superior? Explain to me why you're right and I'm wrong?

      May 8, 2011 at 6:56 pm |
  17. paul

    @I loveGod,u r wasting your time on these people.They did not believe Christ then. not much has changed in 2000 yrs.

    May 8, 2011 at 6:31 pm |
    • RaKa

      No. I will hang on to God, He has never let go of me.

      May 8, 2011 at 9:00 pm |
  18. Fat Bobby Joe

    You ask for the face of American stupidity, I give you Harleygirlxx91.

    May 8, 2011 at 6:29 pm |
  19. jeru0455

    roll tide!

    May 8, 2011 at 6:28 pm |
    • RTR

      Bear said, "We're gonna kick your ass every year!" Rolllll Tide Roll

      May 8, 2011 at 8:59 pm |
  20. Fast Fred

    We can't explain who we are or why we are or why we do what we do. So we look to a higher power (a god) to explain things.
    The only fear we have is death. The only drive we have is to reproduce. Once reproduce our job is done, as with other animals.

    May 8, 2011 at 6:15 pm |
    • Edward

      You honestly believe what you just said? Our only job is to reproduce? What made you come to that conclusion?

      May 8, 2011 at 6:47 pm |
    • tommas

      He is correct... all life is nothing more then a self sustaining chemical reaction whose only purpose is to continue said reaction. ....... Until the sun burns out if humans have not left this solar system.

      May 8, 2011 at 6:53 pm |
    • Edward

      Tommas,
      These chemical reactions would be totally random then, right? They would have been initiated at the beginning, the big bang or however we got here. Then how do you explain our ability to reason? Is this a material component of our brains? If all the chemical reactions are random or set off by some initial cause, like you would say, since i'm assuming your a naturalist (pardon me if I'm wrong)., then how do we account for our ability to reason? Wouldn't that make what you think and what i think totally a matter of chance? If that's the case then I have no reason to believe what you're saying is true and you would have no reason to believe what i'm saying is true. But it is obvious that you think you are right, that you've come to that conclusion (what you just wrote) through reason, through being able to assess the facts and make a logical deduction, right? Of course, if our ability to reason is not a material component of our brains then there exists something beyond the natural order, correct?

      May 8, 2011 at 7:03 pm |
    • tommas

      Edward, it is not random it was made by natural selection. We reason because it helps us survive, it is that simple

      May 8, 2011 at 7:05 pm |
    • Edward

      tommas,
      no man, i'm sorry, but that is far too inadequate of an explanation. natural selection can't produce the ability to reason. it can't account for it. it isn't just that simple. i'm sorry if i didn't explain myself clearly, but i was asking you to explain the process of reasoning in a naturalistic way. how do the chemical reactions or the motion of atoms that are completely random cause us to produce intelligible dialogue, conclusions, inferences, etc...

      May 8, 2011 at 7:11 pm |
    • tommas

      Edward it is called cognitive neuroscience. There is much work left in this field but the theories are all there and will be much more VERY soon. The human brain functional connectome is already underway. Neuronal circuits in you neocortex is where your "soul" lies. You are hiding your god in gaps in our current knowledge as many have done before you and it is folly as the gaps grow smaller everyday.

      May 8, 2011 at 7:18 pm |
    • tommas

      natural selection: "chemical reactions or the motion of atoms" put together organic chemistry, put together the first chemical reactions of life, put together multicellular communication, put together simple cellular communication networks, simple brains, more complex brains, -> Consciousness... It is truly amazing what a few billion years can do

      May 8, 2011 at 7:21 pm |
    • Edward

      Edward it is called cognitive neuroscience. There is much work left in this field but the theories are all there and will be much more VERY soon. (There is much work left to be done but the "theories" are all there...How does that even substantiate your claim? There's a whole lot of work left to do but the ideas of what MIGHT be the case are available for us to read...is that what you are saying? So i'm supposed to believe you're gapping over my gapping?)

      May 8, 2011 at 7:32 pm |
    • tommas

      Then give me any evidence to the contrary that consciousness is outside of the brain... Beside the useless subjective "natural selection can't produce the ability to reason. it can't account for it. it isn't just that simple." I don't think that I am right, it is what all the evidence points to. I am always ready to be proven wrong if stronger evidence is presented, but you are apparently void of any (don't feel bad, it currently does not exist).

      May 8, 2011 at 7:45 pm |
    • Edward

      tommas,
      First off, my bad if i came across as a jerk, i think we're both emotionally vested in our viewpoints, but secondly, let's take a look at what you just said...(Then give me any evidence to the contrary that consciousness is outside of the brain... Beside the useless subjective "natural selection can't produce the ability to reason. it can't account for it. it isn't just that simple.") You quote my response but you had just made literally the same exact comment..."it is not random it was made by natural selection. We reason because it helps us survive, it is that simple." If you are going to call my response "useless and subjective" when you pretty much said the same exact thing then doesn't that make your response the same as mine? Let's get away from saying that either one of our responses is "useless" or "subjective" (certainly the latter one applies to both of us, but the former one doesn't..) and look at the issues with respect for one another. I want you to deal with my initial questions about reason, i think there is evidence there, and no i didn't come up with that on my own, obviously. C.S. Lewis put forth the argument at the Oxford Socratic Club about 50 or 60 years ago and then after a strong critique by Elisabeth Anscombe he edited it and put it in a fantastic book called "Miracles." Victor Reppart also dealt extensively with Lewis' argument and wrote a great book about it, another suggested read on the subject. So, I think there is some evidence out there...they may be theories...but they are well thought, logically valid and sound arguments

      May 8, 2011 at 8:28 pm |
    • RaKa

      The only O Bama Nation I see is these responses.

      May 8, 2011 at 8:58 pm |
    • RaKa

      As I was saying, trying to prove to an atheist that there is a God is about as pointless as someone trying to prove to me that there is such a thing as an atheist. If you don't believe, you don't believe and there is nothing anyone can do about it. Atheist don't actually exist, so I don't waste my time with something I don't believe in.

      May 8, 2011 at 9:13 pm |
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About this blog

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.