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As Funerals Begin, Alabama Church Helps Families Move Past Deadly Tornado


Freddy Tate (ph) of Opelika, Ala., rushed to the site of Sunday's deadly tornado. What he found was devastating.

FREDDY TATE: I was actually one of the ones that was there first before the first responders got there. So I seen a lot of things that the average person shouldn't see. So I have a lot of sleepless nights, just nervous, scared and (unintelligible) - sad. Sometimes I can still be a little happy - just a lot of different emotions.

MARTIN: Several of Tate's family members were killed. In all, 23 people died in the tornado. The community is laying many of those victims to rest. Well, today President Trump travels to the area. Jeff Meyers is senior pastor at First Baptist Opelika, and he will preside over some of the funerals taking place. I asked him about the message he'll try to convey.

JEFF MEYERS: Well, anytime you have the privilege of presiding over a funeral service, there's really - there's two parts. One part is remembering the person of whose life you're celebrating. And there are the stories that you tell and the accolades that you give.

The second part is, how do I minister to a family that is grieving and oftentimes angry? How do I give them hope? How do I give them purpose? How do I direct them, biblically speaking, to a loving, merciful, graceful God when those really aren't the words that they're probably thinking right now to attribute to him? And so it is a message of hope. It is a message of grace. It is a message of mercy in the midst of a horrific tragedy and a lot of difficult questions that people are asking themselves.

MARTIN: I understand you and your congregation have formed a kind of a small army of volunteers that's been going into the area that was affected, trying to help with the recovery. What have they been able to do?

MEYERS: Well, the recovery effort - and we've actually strategically partnered with Samaritan's Purse. They are living on our property. They are eating on our property. But every morning, they'll send teams of hundreds of people out into our community. And there's really several phases. The first phase is just to assess, you know, looking at the property, talking with the families. And we're hearing stories.

We spoke to a young man yesterday, and here we are in Opelika, Ala. After the storm, somebody called him. His checkbook that had his personal information on it landed in LaGrange, Ga., which is dozens of miles away. And so when we assess the situation, not everything is right on site, if that makes sense. And then after we assess the situation, then we collect not just data but items and that which is salvageable, if there is anything at all. And then we prepare a plan for going forward with these families. How can we take what either is or is not there and move forward to restore life as you knew it before the storm days afterwards?

MARTIN: How do you help people make sense of a new reality that is so not the life they thought they were going to lead because they've lost someone?

MEYERS: Well, I think that's kind of the story of life. I don't know how many of your listeners have said, oh, my life went exactly as I scripted it. Life is a series of challenges. And, oftentimes, we see them as obstacles. But the Lord sees them as opportunities. How can I take an event that is painful - how can I take an event that is tragic, one that I didn't foresee, and allow my life to actually be stronger on the other side? And so this is an opportunity for our community. This is an opportunity for these families. This is an opportunity for our church. As we trust in the Lord and those around us, we can actually come out on the other side stronger than we were before the storm.

MARTIN: Jeff Meyers, a senior pastor at the First Baptist Church in Opelika. Thank you so much for your time, pastor.

MEYERS: Thank you for hearing our story. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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