A pair of bells, rung by the minister’s wife, echoed into the cold morning air. A church member passed out communion in plastic cups to people perched on folding chairs. Dozens huddled together to sing hymns and pray on the pavement.
This was the scene Sunday in the parking lot of First Christian Church of Mayfield as the congregation stood by their tan brick church, shredded by a tornado. What was a second floor and a distinctive dome on top of the house of worship was torn. Rubble surrounded the structure.
First Christian Church of Mayfield Senior Minister Milton West said their communion table inside is salvageable, but not much else. He’s unsure if his congregation will ever again worship in the building, but that’s not what matters most to him now.
“The most important thing they gained is they saw each other. And it’s good for them, and it’s healthy, and it’s healing. And that’s how you overcome things,” West said.
Mayfield community members lost homes, loved ones and historic church buildings. Much of the town is unrecognizable. But leaning on their faith, the First Christian Church of Mayfield still gathered. They weren’t the only ones. Other local churches responded by rallying to aid their neighbors.
Churches near Paducah and Graves County offered shelter and food as volunteers and donations pouring in from across western Kentucky and the country.
At His House Ministries in Mayfield, a flurry of people moved quickly throughout the church turned resource center. Semi-trucks of clothes and supplies from other states were sorted in the sanctuary along with an assembly line of hot meals in the lobby as packages of bottled water sat stacked outside the double front doors.
It’s a relief for Brenda Moore, who is staying with relatives in Fulton after her Mayfield home became a total loss from the tornado.
“We got well blessed here. We got some comforters, we got some towels, hygiene accessories and all of the above,” Moore said.
Moore was just one of many helped by church volunteers, with a drive-thru of cars pulling up and requesting supplies.
About ten miles outside of Mayfield, two churches in the community of Wingo became impromptu shelters for more than 100 people. Sloping down the hillside in Wingo lies The Way community center, an old factory turned youth center. Inside, iced tea is served in styrofoam Sonic-branded fast food cups, pizzas are warmed in the kitchen and cots line the large space.
It serves as a warm bed for 22-year-old Austin Cayse and his fiancé, who walked out of their apartment to see their community transformed by the disaster.
“It’s just hard because you wake up – and we had a little park where the kids would play and people would bring their dogs – and it’s just gone, you know?” Cayse said, tears rolling down his cheek.
He paused for a moment.
“I really haven’t let myself process it.”
Beverly Duffy, 65, was lying down next to her husband, John, with a Bible on the stand next to her. Duffy is a woman of faith who wholeheartedly believes herself and her hometown of Mayfield will be taken care of in the coming weeks. But that doesn’t change the painful memories of seeing the local landmarks she grew up with demolished, she said, also losing two close friends in the collapse of a local candle factory.
“I don’t even know where we go from here,” Duffy said. “Mayfield, Kentucky’s gone.”
Just up the road from The Way community center sits the Wingo Old Cumberland Presbyterian Church, also offering shelter to those displaced by the storm. Pastor R.B. Mays’ message to his congregation Sunday morning tried to provide meaning to what had happened to their community.
“This is supposed to hurt. We’re not in the world that God originally created,” Mays said. “It’s a broken world with tornadoes and hurricanes and fires and tragedy.”
Mays knows there’s going to be physical needs for weeks to come. Buildings to be rebuilt, people to be buried and debris cleared. But in the long term, he sees faith as key to helping Graves County move on from the mental scars of this tragedy: “Long after we quit building stuff, there’s gonna be people who remember that night.”