IMAGE: CHURCH SIGN
Charlie Riedel  /  AP
Monica Adams on Saturday paints a temporary sign at the West Lafayette Baptist Church in Lafayette, Tenn., one of towns hardest hit by last weeks twisters.
updated 2/10/2008 1:13:23 PM ET 2008-02-10T18:13:23

On the way to this storm-ravaged community, a billboard bubbling with fresh paste rises over a rural road with a message from the Gospel of Matthew: "Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted."

In Macon County and other predominantly Christian areas where tornadoes laid a deadly path, churches — and individuals' faith — are playing a vital role in the aftermath.

Faith is a way of life here. Many have volunteered services, opened disaster centers with food and shelter, clothing and medicine, while those who escaped death when so many did not say they are finding hope in stories of survival.

"I was in a tornado — and I lived," said James Krueger, a 49-year-old electrician, as tears streamed from his eyes blackened in the storm. When the winds hit, his 100-year-old home flew from the foundation until he lay on barren ground.

It was an unlikely survival he cannot help but attribute to a higher power.

"The bottom line is something kept me there," he said, shaking his head in disbelief.

'No atheists in foxholes'
Stories like Krueger's are bringing hope for many residents struggling to figure how they will reassemble their lives, said Terry Gillim, a minister at the Church of Christ in Lafayette.

On Friday, Gillim directed a disaster center flush with supplies, including clothing and medicine. Members of his church brushed elbows over boxes with those he had never seen in church before.

"They say there are no atheists in foxholes," Gillim said. "There is a deep desire to know God. And when tragedy strikes or adversity comes our way, those desires are brought to the forefront — whether we want them or not."

Among the volunteers was Karen Long, 43, herself a survivor whose family huddled in the living room of their home when the winds stripped the roof away and showered them in debris.

Long said her faith — now more than ever — allowed her to help others. She laughed when she described the damage and her nephew finding a hymnal shredded of all but one song — "Victory Behind The Clouds."

"It's a thousand wonders we're still here," she said.

In many of the cities and small towns across the South struck by storms that killed 59 people in all, churches are the meeting places, social centers and shelters for residents — whether they are regular members or not.

It was a theme President Bush addressed during a visit Friday to Lafayette to tour the devastation, offering hugs to those caught in the storm's deadly path.

"I have no doubt in my mind this community will come back better than before," Bush told residents of the poor, tobacco-farming area near the Kentucky border. "Macon County people are down to earth, hardworking, God-fearing people, who if just given a little help, will come back stronger."

'Raging outside ... peaceful inside'
The words were comforting to Charles Hale, a 66-year-old retiree, who said his faith is carrying him forward.

He recounted the storm hitting. He and his wife huddled in a closet beneath the stairs as the house shook around him and winds drove branches through the bricks like bullets.

When it was finished he opened the door and saw sky above.

"It was just like there was something comforting through the whole thing," Hale said with a smile. "The almighty was raging outside, but everything was peaceful inside."

Not all churches were able to help in disaster relief.

Antioch Missionary Baptist Church in nearby Galen was destroyed in the storm for the second time in its nearly century-old history — the first decades ago to a fire.

But its members said their faith was more important than the wood beams that hold the building. They have to rebuild.

Ronnie Holland, a 48-year-old church member, stopped clearing branches to explain the small country church was an anchor to the community — had been "ever since there has been people here," he explained.

"I've got four kids who were saved here," Holland said. "This old church is still here."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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