NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Surrounded by tragedy and destruction, many Christians in the areas hit hardest by the violent Tennessee tornadoes did what they always do on Sunday mornings.
They went to church.
Although steadfast in their weekly routines, some filed into services with heavier hearts, grieving the members of their congregations who died in the storm and would never show up again for a Sunday service.
"Peace is not found in the absence of tragedy. Peace is found in the presence of the Lord," said John Nichols, the teaching minister at Collegeside Church of Christ in Cookeville, Tennessee. Two of Collegeside's members perished in the storm.
Worship also looked a bit different on the first Sunday after seven tornadoes touched down in Tennessee.
Congregations whose churches were in the path of the twisters gathered outside in the crisp, morning air against a backdrop of their wrecked buildings while others assembled inside borrowed spaces so they could still pray and sing together.
Rev. Jacques Boyd preached under a big, white tent in North Nashville as Mount Bethel Missionary Baptist Church's badly damaged house of worship and Christian center stood behind him. The church dubbed it "worship in the rubble."
"For 135 years we have always had a place to call home," said Boyd, preaching.
"But my question for you Mount Bethel, now that the brick and mortar is gone, do you still love God? Now that the brick and mortar is gone, do you still love this community? Now that the brick and mortar is gone, can you still give God praise?"
They did and they could. Those inside the crowded tent responded to each of the pastor's questions with a chorus of yeses and applause.
Even contractors who were busily trying to replace downed power lines paused and took off their hard hats as Boyd led the congregation in prayer on the sunny, windy morning.
It was a display of resilience and faith replicated across Tennessee on Sunday morning.
Churches offer message of hope to survivors
Early Tuesday, tornado sirens and phone alerts jolted many Tennesseans awake. Twenty-four people lost their lives as tornadoes barreled for miles, including one that traveled for more than 60. The twisting tempests whipped through seven counties.
The deadly storm took a lot from Tennesseans.
It killed their loved ones, destroyed their homes and ran roughshod over their sense of security. But they carried on anyway.
Others are helped when churches keep going, said Jamie D. Aten, founder and executive director of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute at Wheaton College.
"Our research has shown that when disasters strike, people will seek out support from local churches regardless if their buildings are still standing or not. People turn to local churches looking for encouragement, meaning and help," Aten said in an email.
"It's important for churches to realize that their greatest asset isn't their building — it is their message of hope and people that survivors need most."
Volunteers say North Nashville needs shift from material to monetary
While more than 600 volunteers showed up to Lee Chapel AME Church on Sunday to assist in tornado recovery efforts, organizers with The Equity Alliance spoke about the shifting needs of North Nashville residents.
"We're starting a fund for monetary supplies like gas cards, utility bills and Kroger gift cards," organizer Tequila Johnson said.
For many North Nashville residents heavily impacted by Tuesday's storms, basic needs like temporary shelter and food are coming together, thanks to a week of volunteer efforts by residents from every corner of Nashville.
But less obvious needs are slowly becoming apparent, and many of them directly impact a person's ability to make a living.
"Tennessee drivers' licenses, for example." Johnson said. "I found a place that wasoffering free licenses, which lots of people lost in the tornadoes."
Additionally, Johnson points out, tornadoes don't stop billing cycles, but many residents have lost days of work and income while trying to piece their lives back together.
"People still have utility bills to pay, and new deposits to put down," Johnson said.
Among the recovery ideas, Johnson said, is a benefit concert.
A concert, Johnson said, would serve two purposes: It would assist with fundraising for North Nashville residents, but it would also keep the culture centered — the latter of which Johnson said is being endangered by developers looking to capitalize on other's misfortunes with quick cash offers for decimated properties.
"We need something to move people out of this state of mind, on to the next thing, which is rebuilding," Johnson said. "If there's ever a time for the Music City to showcase their culture, it's now."
Musicians interested in donating their talents for a benefit concert can reach out to Equity Alliance.
Contributing: Michaela A. Watts, Nashville Tennessean; Kristin M. Hall, Associated Press