Although South Carolina has not issued a “shelter in place” order for the COVID-19 virus, that’s what many residents found themselves doing as tornadoes cut a swath from Seneca in the “upstate” to Summerville in the “low country” early April 13.
While parts of Seneca saw serious devastation, none of the area Wesleyan churches (and there are several) experienced more than a downed tree or two. But in Summerville, Providence Wesleyan Church is still cleaning the 50 or 60 trees that came down on its property, crushing gates, destroying fences and tossing debris everywhere. The congregation celebrates that the storm did not harm anyone or the church building in any significant way.
“It was pretty incredible,” said Rev. Wayne Otto, who launched Providence with his wife, Amy, in 2013. “It was like the tornado selected our property to hit. The lot was blanketed with trees and limbs; I could hardly see the asphalt.”
Next door to the church is what Providence refers to as “the big house,” a 6,000-square-foot building where a couple of pastors and their families live. The house is also used for various functions. As the tornado tore through the property around 6:30 a.m. and the house began to shake, everyone ran for the first floor. “It is just a miracle it didn’t topple,” Otto said. While the house remains standing and appears sound, there are considerable repairs needed.
“Nobody was hurt, and we can replant,” said Otto, referring to the rows of Bradford pear trees that used to line the beautiful entrance. “We’re asking people to pray. Easter is about going from tragedy to triumph, and we’ll be triumphant whether it is tornadoes or COVID-19 or whatever comes our way.”
Providence was able to get that message out when a local news station came to do a story on the damage. Otto spread the word that “with God we can get through whatever is thrown at us. At the end of the day, God is going to use all of this for his glory.”
The storms came the morning after a successful online Easter service. Providence, which normally has an average worship attendance of 200, has been seeing 1,400-2,000 online and has had viewers make the decision to follow Christ.
“The biggest need Providence has now is manpower and money,” said Otto. Laborers have been showing up in droves. Dozens of church volunteers, including members of a Brazilian floating church, have been clearing and sawing their way through the devastation. The Brazilians had been using a Providence classroom for their food pantry ministry.
“They really helped and to see this melding together of people is just an awesome thing,” Otto said.
Looking back at Otto’s Easter sermon, his church may well remember these prophetic words: “The struggle that surrounds us this Easter can help us actually identify more intimately with the struggles those first believers had that first Easter weekend … some of them are afraid … before you know it, they are feeling despair … discouraged as they are hiding away in their homes… ”
While many of us today worry about what a new normal may look like, much like those early Christians, we can all embrace the idea of turning tragedy into triumph.
Jennifer Jones serves as district administrator for the South Carolina District.