Small Church Does the "Impossible" Following Tornado Tragedy
Don't miss any stories. Follow AG News!
It was around 1:30 a.m. when an E4-tornado, packing winds of up to 175 mph, tore through Cookeville, a community of about 35,000 located in Putnam County. Eighteen people in the county lost their lives that morning and at least 20 homes were leveled to their foundations, with many other homes and businesses suffering extreme damage as well.
“There was a Minit Mart, it was a brick building, and the tornado took the pumps, island, the building, everything — swept it clean,” Myron Greer recalls. “There were apartment houses, and now, just nothing was there. It was the worst devastation I’ve ever seen and it happened in just a moment’s time.”
Greer, 73, could see the path of the tornado, which carved a trail of destruction just a few hundred yards from the church. His heart was broken for people he didn’t even know. He knew right away that the church of 75 to 85 needed to respond, praying that God would use them. Little did he know that God would use them to provide thousands of meals.
“I can honestly say that this congregation believes in doing what Jesus asked Peter to do: ‘If you love Me, feed My sheep,’” Greer says. “In an average year, we normally do three major food giveaways (in addition to the church’s daily food pantry), which averages about 220 families or 750 individuals.”
But what seemed “major” at one time became commonplace. Youth pastors Ed and Teresa Ortlepp joined the Greers, along with volunteers from the church and outside of the church, to open the church’s fellowship hall and serve hearty breakfasts and lunches the day after the tornado hit.
“The message from God was, ‘If you start, I will send help,’” Greer says. “So, we’d start our days in the kitchen at 4 a.m. and get done at 4 or 5 p.m. The first meal we served, the power was still out and we were running on generators — we served right at 900 people that day.”
For 17 consecutive days the fellowship hall remained open, serving meals to first responders, victims, Samaritan’s Purse volunteers, and other volunteers. In the afternoons, they loaded up the church van with water and other beverages along with snacks and lunch items and headed out into the devastated neighborhoods, bringing nourishment to those too busy or distraught to think about eating.
For a small church, this effort of providing thousands upon thousands of meals was seemingly an impossible undertaking, but Greer says God had prepared them for the financial investment and multiplied their efforts as He inspired others to give toward the effort.
“At the beginning of January 2020 God knew there was going to be a mission beyond anything that we have done or could imagine,” he says. “He supplied the miracle to completely pay off a 20-year-loan (the fellowship hall loan), which left us debt-free after only four and one-half years.”
Convoy of Hope contacted Greer to see about bringing a truckload of supplies to help assist with the relief efforts. However, he declined as so many businesses and church and community members had already stepped forward to donate items, they simply didn’t have room for anything more.
“I’d be standing in line at Sam’s and people would know or see what we were doing, and they wanted to be a part of helping, so they’d donate right there while I was standing in line,” Greer says, marveling at God’s provision. “We had everything people needed, from hygiene items to food and clothing and shoes, even diapers — about everything you could think of.”
The Ortlepps, who have been youth pastors at the church for 10 years, say that by providing meals, the church had the opportunity to connect with many people in the community they otherwise never would have.
“We got to pray with a lot of different people while passing out coffee and snacks,” Teresa says. “You could tell that what some of the volunteers saw had affected them emotionally too. We had a real meaningful time to witness to people.”
The Greers and Ortlepps knew and prayed with several community members who lost relatives in the tornado — one man, who helped with the church’s backpack food program, lost his 3-year-old daughter and another man lost his parents.
Several families committed to start coming to the church once things were settled, but before that could fully take place, the pandemic struck. However, the effort the church made is still fresh in people’s minds as notes of appreciation and gratitude from community members as well as volunteers are still being sent to the church.
“We’re so thankful that God blessed us with this opportunity — He spared this church for a reason,” Ed says. “We just give Him the glory in allowing us to reach out to the community . . . God has blessed us to bless others.”
For the Greers, the tornado has inspired them to become even more involved in their community than they already are.
“If God can take a burning bush for Moses, or a big fish for Jonah, he has used this storm to get our attention and show us He placed us here to be a voice for Him,” Greer says. “If I, as pastor, have learned anything, it is this: Don’t wait until after the storm hits to minister to your community.”
What is God going to do next through the church? No one knows for sure, but following a food giveaway on Saturday, the church launched into a series of nightly services, believing for a powerful move of God, while still respecting physical distancing guidelines.
“We had two people saved before the worship service even began on Sunday and another Monday night,” Greer says. “We are open and the Lord is touching and ministering.”