Pastors became counselors after deadly tornado

published 3/7/2019
(Sam Hodges for the UMNS) - Ash Wednesday gatherings at United Methodist churches in east Alabama became services of remembrance for 23 people killed in a massive tornado. 

For sure, the United Methodist pastors of Lee County, Alabama, will long remember how they became a team of crisis counselors just after the EF4 twister tore through the area on Sunday afternoon, March 3.

When she learned from a TV news broadcast that the county had been badly hit, the Rev. Robin Wilson texted the chaplain at East Alabama Medical Center, offering to help.

“She texted back just two words: ‘Please come,’ ” said Wilson, pastor of First United Methodist in Opelika, Alabama.

Wilson hurried there.

“When I got to the hospital, it looked like a war zone,” she said. “The cries of the people who were hurt, the pain of the people who were grieving, the fear of the people who couldn’t find their loved ones — that just filled up the whole hospital.”

Wilson’s husband — the Rev. Jeff Wilson, superintendent of the Montgomery-Opelika District of the Alabama-West Florida Conference — meanwhile contacted other local United Methodist pastors and asked them to go to the hospital.

They did, ministering to victims’ family members and friends streaming into the lobby, while Robin Wilson worked in the emergency room.

The next day, some of those pastors were at a Baptist church in Beauregard, Alabama, scene of the worst damage, to accompany family members who had been summoned by the coroner to identify bodies.

“Just to be in a ministry of presence with them,” said the Rev. Cory Smith, pastor of Auburn (Ala.) United Methodist Church, describing his and his colleagues’ task. “Just to help them know that God was with them in the midst of this.”

Among those killed was a member of Cornerstone (United Methodist) Church, Lynn Grimes. The church, in Auburn, was to have a service for him on March 7.

Many homes and other structures in Lee County were damaged by the tornado. President Donald Trump issued a disaster declaration, releasing federal funds for relief, and he plans to visit March 8.

The 1905 sanctuary of Watoola United Methodist Church was clobbered by the twister.

“Half the roof is gone,” said the Rev. Gary Perry, pastor.

The Lee County church’s community building came through and will be the home to worship services beginning this Sunday, as church leaders work with insurance adjusters to decide whether the sanctuary can be salvaged.

“For many people in the church, it’s the only church they’ve known,” Perry said. “When they look at it and think about it having to be replaced, it’s difficult.”

The Lee County tornado was one of many that hit across parts of the Southeast on Sunday.

At Cairo United Methodist Church, in Cairo, Georgia, a tornado badly damaged a former parsonage that had recently been remodeled for a youth ministry space. The church had roof and interior damage as well, said Allison Lindsey, director of connectional ministries for the South Georgia Conference.

She said homes “in the shadow of the (church’s) steeple” also were hit.

“It’s a unique opportunity for the church to be in outreach,” Lindsey added.

In Lee County, United Methodist volunteers have been helping with debris removal and roof repair. 

Pierce Chapel United Methodist Church has become an emergency response staging site. Smith said Auburn United Methodist is serving as an American Red Cross shelter, housing 100 people. 

“We will respond to immediate and long-term needs in the days and weeks to come,” said Alabama West-Florida Conference Bishop David Graves in a statement.

The United Methodist Committee on Relief has sent supplies and issued a $10,000 grant to the Alabama-West Florida Conference. The conference is accepting checks for recovery.

Officials with the Alabama-West Florida, South Georgia and North Georgia conferences said they have communicated about mobilizing a broad support effort. 

Two of the pastors who reported to the hospital on Sunday, Wilson and Smith, had only recently returned from the special General Conference in St. Louis.

“I had a funeral after St. Louis, and this hit the next day,” Wilson said. “I haven’t had quite as much time as I’d like to prepare and lead my congregation into a season of Lent. But perhaps that’s what Lent is for — to realize how little control we have and how to show how we have to put our hope in a savior who came to heal everything.”

Hodges is a Dallas-based writer for United Methodist News Service. Contact him at 615-742-5470 or To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests

Post General Conference Meetings and Questions

published 3/6/2019

In preparation for the post general conference meetings with Bishop Graves this week, we are announcing a dedicated gmail address where you can send your questions ahead of time. These questions will be given priority. We will also field additional questions at the meetings as time permits.

Please send to

As a reminder, the meetings are as follows. Details can be found on our event calendar on the Website. 
Thursday, March 7, 2019, at Montgomery FUMC
Saturday, March 9, 2019, at Covenant UMC in Dothan, AL
Saturday, March 9, 2019, at Covenant UMC in Dothan, AL (local pastors and associate members)
Sunday, March 10 2019, at Christ UMC in Mobile, AL
Monday, March 11, 2019, at Christ UMC in Mobile, AL (clergy)

A Lenten Challenge from Bishop David Graves

published 3/5/2019

Bishop David Graves has offered a Lenten challenge for the people of the Alabama-West Florida Conference and beyond. Click here or to see the video. We invite you to share this challenge with your local churches and on social media. 

You may also listen to this message as an audio-only podcast by clicking here, by searching for "AWFUMC Podcasts" on iTunes or in your preferred podcast player. We invite you to subscribe to these podcasts.

A Statement from Dr. Jeff Wilson and the Montgomery-Opelika District: Lee County Storm Damage

published 3/5/2019

"The Montgomery-Opelika District suffered catastrophic damage on Sunday, March 3, 2019, as a result of violent storms and tornadoes. To date, 23 people have died and more than 50 people were injured. The response from the United Methodist Church has been significant and will continue to be a constant presence for days and weeks to come.  On both Sunday and Monday, numerous United Methodist pastors provided pastoral support and care to families who lost loved ones. This was emotionally grueling work for them as they also continue their day-to-day ministry. I am so very grateful for their faithful service and ministry. 

The sanctuary of Watoola UMC, near Opelika, AL, suffered extensive damage. I am working with Bishop Graves and our disaster response team to provide the best resources we can for this church. They have made arrangements to worship in the fellowship hall, which was damaged but not destroyed.  We are currently looking for warehouse space to store the sanctuary pews and furniture.  Please contact me if you have heated/cooled space that could be used for long-term storage for Watoola UMC as they begin to rebuild. 
Many of our local churches in the area have mobilized supply collections. I am grateful for our connection and am reminded of the importance of our denomination in times like these. At this time, we do not need more supplies.  However, we will continue to monitor the needs and communicate them out as needed.

One way our Alabama-West Florida Conference family can immediately help is to collect a special offering this Sunday, March 10, 2019. Checks may be sent to the conference or district office with a notation of, “2019 tornado response.” This money will be used for long-term recovery efforts in Lee and Russell Counties.   

The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) quickly mobilized and sent necessary supplies and a $10,000 grant. Again, we are grateful for their partnership and our connectional system.

Please join me in praying for those who were forever changed by this tragic storm. I am incredibly proud of how our district clergy and churches have responded, and I know that they will continue to lead the recovery and healing efforts. Thank you for the care and concern you have expressed and the many ways you have offered to assist those in need. I will continue to assess and inform you of the needs of the community in the days to come."

Dr. Jeff Wilson
District Superintendent, Montgomery-Opelika District
Alabama-West Florida Conference of The United Methodist Church

A Statement from Bishop David Graves Regarding Catastrophic Storms in Alabama

published 3/4/2019
“I am deeply saddened as I continue to hear of the rising death toll in Lee County. Yesterday’s storms were catastrophic and will leave a permanent mark on areas of our conference. I want to express my deepest sympathy to the families who lost a loved one in this tragedy. The raw pain you are experiencing is unfathomable. Several United Methodist pastors have responded to these families and were present last night at East Alabama Medical Center to provide comfort, prayer and pastoral support. They will continue to be available to families affected by the tornado.
Watoola UMC, located near Opelika, AL, received extensive damage from the storms. Our Montgomery-Opelika district disaster response director and team are assessing damage and will keep our conference leadership informed as they continue to contact our churches and clergy in the area.
As we draw close to Ash Wednesday, we are reminded of our human mortality and sorrow. The United Methodist Church has a great opportunity to serve our communities who are broken by this tragedy. We will respond to immediate and long-term needs in the days and weeks to come. Please join me in praying for those who were forever changed by yesterday’s storms.”
Bishop David Graves
Resident Bishop
Alabama-West Florida Conference

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