By Barnett Wright
Times staff writer
The Rev. T.L. Lewis, pastor of Bethel Baptist Church in Pratt City, vividly remembers the destructive tornado that hit his community five years ago, tearing through a wide swath of homes and buildings, including his church.
“The devastation was at a level we had never ever seen before. It was like, and this is putting it mildly, a bomb had gone off,” Lewis recalled on Wednesday—the fifth anniversary of the April 27, 2011, tornadoes.
On that day, more than 60 tornadoes tore through Alabama, leaving 254 dead and more than 16,000 homeowners in need of assistance.
On that day, Bethel Baptist was leveled, knocked to its foundation—but not for long. The church was rebuilt from the ground up.
Today, the congregation worships in an $8 million facility that is nearly double the size of the old building, going from 44,000 to 70,000 square feet, with a sanctuary that seats 1,800.
A commemorative worship service was held at Bethel Baptist Church on Wednesday. On Saturday, April 30, 2016, a commemorative festival will be held from at the Howze-Sanford Recreation Center in Pratt City.
On a Mission
Following the devastation five years ago, Lewis’s congregation immediately went to work—on more than just rebuilding. Even though their church home had suffered major damage, Bethel Baptist’s members embarked on a mission to help others.
“When the tornado hit, our first premonition was not to build a building back. Our first premonition was to make sure that those people who had become homeless would not become helpless,” Lewis said. “Our church building became secondary. All the years I served as pastor, we have reminded our members that the church is not property, the church is people. And if you don’t affect the lives of people, you won’t have much of a church.”
The Bible teaches several lessons about perseverance, Lewis said.
“If God can trust you with the trouble, the least you are going to come out of it with is double,” he said. “The biblical record shows people who God trusted with trouble. I believe the most familiar individual in the scriptures was a fellow from a place called Uz; his name was Job. Job lost everything he had. When you get to the climax of the story, you learn that everything Job lost, God gave it back to him double.”
Out of the Storm …
That has been true for Pratt City years later, Lewis believes.
“Out of that storm came more than a rainbow,” he said. “For many, a pot of gold came out of that storm because they have been able to build better, bigger, and more beautiful than what they had.”
Birmingham officials are also helping via the Super Block concept. Tom Leader Studio, the design firm behind Railroad Park, has been enlisted to craft and create space for existing and new residents of Pratt City.
Paramount to the project: a world-class park and community center. The site will serve as a city green, or front yard, and civic gathering space that provides the framework for new housing construction in the area.
“Railroad Park was the catalyst for the development we now see in that area,” said Birmingham Mayor William Bell. “By using the same overall concept and the same team that developed Railroad Park, we are hopeful that will have the same transformative impact in this neighborhood. What the park and community center ultimately become will be based on the needs and desires of the residents and stakeholders of the area.”
It is anticipated that the park and community center will share the same Super Block as the community’s existing library. This project, along with the construction of new integrated housing, will create a solid fabric that will continue to stitch Pratt City back together.