Alabama church finds hope, strength to rebuild after devastating tornado

Carnation pink tufts of insulation pop on a backdrop of wet, black asphalt. The walls that once kept them hidden, blown open and reduced to piles of rubble. All around the debris are tattered trees, shredded bare as if cut by dull scissors.

This is the aftermath of a tornado that struck Wadsworth Baptist Church in the rural town of Deatsville, Alabama, on Thursday.

While all seems lost, hope remains, as the lead pastor and congregation of Wadsworth pick up the pieces and rebuild their house of worship.

Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama, after a tornado struck on January 12, 2023.
Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama, after a tornado struck on January 12, 2023.

Wadsworth Baptist Church lead pastor Josh Pendergrass was at home on Thursday afternoon, when he heard on the news that a tornado was approaching Wadsworth Baptist Church.

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Once the storm passed, Pendergrass called a member of the congregation who lived near the church to ask how he and his family were doing and whether he had a chance to check on the church.

The gentleman went to church and called Pendergrass back.

"He was sobbing and so emotionally distraught that I couldn't understand a word that he said," Pendergrass said. "I knew right then that the storm had taken our church building away."

A shredded tree surrounded by debris, next to Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama. A tornado struck the building on January 12, 2023.
A shredded tree surrounded by debris, next to Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama. A tornado struck the building on January 12, 2023.

Pendergrass then hopped into his vehicle and drove to Wadsworth. However, a drive that usually would have taken 15 minutes took nearly an hour due to roads being shut down by police, as many homes and properties along the way were damaged by the storm.

"The anxiety was building because I couldn't get [to Wadsworth]," Pendergrass said. "I knew some of my people were there, and I needed to be with them."

When he arrived, he looked up at his church on a hilltop and saw the devastation.

A new welcome center that was renovated a year and a half ago was completely gone, with glass doors blown out and the entire center blown wide open to the elements.

The 50-year-old church had also completed a $30,000 project the week prior in their children’s center. That, according to Pendergrass, was also gone.

A bare foundation at Wadsworth Baptist Church, as the building that sat atop it was blown to pieces. The church is located in Deatsville, Alabama, and it was struck by a tornado on January 12, 2023.
A bare foundation at Wadsworth Baptist Church, as the building that sat atop it was blown to pieces. The church is located in Deatsville, Alabama, and it was struck by a tornado on January 12, 2023.

"At that moment, I couldn't help but just think, ‘Why? Why is this? We've been working really hard,'" he said.

Wadsworth had also just replenished its food pantry, which distributes between 15,000 and 20,000 pounds of food every month. In the aftermath of the tornado, however, canned goods, frozen chickens and hams and other food items can be seen strewn throughout the church parking lot.

Members of the Wadsworth Baptist Church congregation look on at the devastation caused by the tornado.
Members of the Wadsworth Baptist Church congregation look on at the devastation caused by the tornado.

Pendergrass said the ladies who run the food pantry had restocked it and left the church only an hour before the tornado struck.

"When I found that out, my reaction changed from ‘Why?’ to ‘Thank you,’ because it could have been a whole lot worse than what it actually was," he said.

A shredded tree surrounded by debris, next to Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama. A tornado struck the building on January 12, 2023.
A shredded tree surrounded by debris, next to Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama. A tornado struck the building on January 12, 2023.

Today, the congregation of Wadsworth Baptist Church continues to remain hopeful for their community.

"There is no doubt in our mind that we will rebuild on the hill and that we will be the shining light," Pendergrass said. "It's just our hope that the light that we shine after the devastation is brighter than the light that we shined before – because when we shine after devastation, we bring more glory to God."

Damages inside Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama, after a tornado struck on January 12, 2023.
Damages inside Wadsworth Baptist Church in Deatsville, Alabama, after a tornado struck on January 12, 2023.

For those who would like to aid in the rebuilding process, donations can be made to the Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief Fund.

Pendergrass said the organization will help support both Wadsworth Baptist Church and the nearby families whose homes were destroyed by the tornado.