a destroyed church after several tornados swept through Alabama

Got trouble? Have faith, say residents of America’s most religious state

COVID-19 may shutter their sanctuaries, and tornadoes may destroy their homes. But for many Alabamians, their faith remains a mighty fortress.

The Ragan Chapel Methodist Church was destroyed in a series of tornadoes that swept through Ohatchee, Alabama, and killed five people on March 25, 2021. “With all the stuff going with COVID-19 you can get down, and maybe this was sent to pick our faith back up: people from all over the state and other states, people don’t even speak English and they’re helping,” said the church’s pastor Danny Poss.

Candice Clark-Eaton was ready for a vacation. After a year of keeping herself and her two sons safe from COVID-19, as well as checking in on her senior parents and juggling a hybrid schedule of in-person and remote work, she finally got a chance to slip away and meet her boyfriend in Charleston, South Carolina.

She knew bad weather was coming, so she quickly dropped off her sons at her parents’ home— less than two miles from her house in Wellington, Alabama—and managed to get on the road ahead of the storm. But only 90 minutes into her journey, she got a call from a friend back in Wellington.

A tornado had ripped through her neighborhood. “It looks pretty bad, Candice,” her friend said. “You’re going to need to come back.” She turned around and headed home.

That day—March 25, 2021—a swarm of deadly tornadoes swept through the South, killing five people in Calhoun County, where Clark-Eaton lives, and leaving a 100-mile path of destruction across north central Alabama.

Clark-Eaton’s family was safe, but as she drove home she couldn’t avoid flashbacks of April 27, 2011, when tornadoes claimed the lives of 13 people in her county. She lost everything that day and had to rebuild her life. Now she faced the possibility of having to start all over—again.

Driving through heavy rain, wondering what trouble lay ahead, she prayed everything would be OK. Suddenly she was startled when a nearby car hydroplaned and hit her vehicle. A state trooper arrived, and she stood in the rain crying as they waited for her car to be towed. Then her tears turned to laughter.

“I laughed because I knew that God has a bigger purpose for me,” she explains. Later, when one of her friends asked how she could continue trusting God through all her misfortunes, she replied, “Because I make it through, you know, I make it through. If there wasn’t a God and he’s not listening, I don’t think I could.”

When Clark-Eaton arrived at her house, the walls were still standing but the roof was gone. She unlocked the door and found the interior in ruins. Very few of her possessions were salvageable.

The nearby Church of the Highlands, a megachurch with more than 20 locations across Alabama, helped the single mother of two start rebuilding her life. There’s not much to see or do in her little town, she says, “but the people are amazing.”

Strength in sorrow

Over the past 13 months or so, Americans have had to deal with an array of crises—from a deadly pandemic and natural disasters, to political strife and social unrest. And like Clark-Eaton, many have turned to their faith for comfort and strength.

Nearly three in 10 Americans, or about 28 percent, report having a stronger personal faith as a result of the pandemic, according to a survey conducted earlier this year by the Pew Research Center. Some 77 percent of adults in Alabama say religion is “very important” in their lives, a higher percentage than in any other state.

Like Clark-Eaton, the Rev. Cecelia Walker suffered damage to her home when the tornadoes hit on March 25. But a far greater challenge has been her work at Brookwood Baptist Health System in Birmingham, where she serves as executive director of chaplaincy and clinical pastoral education.

Over the course of the pandemic—which has killed more than 10,000 Alabama residents—Walker and her staff have spent countless hours praying with patients fighting for their lives, coordinating family visits on Zoom or FaceTime, and providing pastoral care to the hospital staff when all the pain and suffering become too much to bear and compassion fatigue sets in.

It takes empathy to help people through times of illness and loss, says Walker, a former librarian who first felt a tug toward the chaplaincy when her father died in 1985. She and her mother didn’t get a call until it was too late, and her father passed away in a small hospital room, half naked and alone. The experience, she says, “haunted me for years.”

A few years later, in 1988, Walker’s husband died suddenly at age 28, but the experience was very different from her father’s death. “I was able to talk to him, say whatever I wanted, to spend that time. And the chaplain was present but not intrusive, and just helped me through that.”

Years later, death claimed both of Walker’s children—her daughter at 14, her son at 31. Their deaths sorely tested her faith, but beloved Bible passages such as Psalm 23 and Deuteronomy 31:6-8—“scriptures that remind me of his presence, of God’s faithfulness”—sustained her.

“God will never leave me nor forsake me,” Walker says. “But sometimes scripture is the last thing that a person wants when they feel like God has failed them.”

In those times, it’s the presence of faithful friends, family, and fellow believers that can make the difference between hope and despair. But maintaining those vital connections during the pandemic has been difficult to impossible for many religious communities.

Restoring lost connections

Attendance at Temple Beth-El in Birmingham was flagging when Rabbi Stephen Slater arrived two years ago. He got busy and after “a lot of hard work and careful planning and relationship building,” he says, the Shabbat morning service was back up to full capacity. “So we started serving a meal again, and people were here until like 2:30 p.m. on Saturday—like five hours here together.”

Then came the pandemic and the year we all stayed home. “In Jewish tradition, you really can’t do even a prayer service alone,” Slater says. “It requires 10 people for a minyan”—the minimum number required for Jewish public worship.

A few weeks ago, just before Passover, Temple Beth-El began allowing its members to sign up for in-person services if they’ve received a second vaccine dose at least two weeks prior. But it will be quite some time before the synagogue is again full of people enjoying worship and long conversations over lunch.

New Shiloh Missionary Baptist Church in Mobile faces much the same challenge. The church reopened for the first time in nearly a year on Easter Sunday. On a normal Easter the sanctuary would be filled with more than 750 churchgoers. This Easter about 150 showed up and spaced themselves out appropriately in the sanctuary. The church’s pastor, Rev. Clinton Johnson, asked each member to stand and give themselves a hug, as if he were embracing them.

For Johnson, the inability to personally comfort and console the members of his flock has been one of the hardest parts of the pandemic. “Normally, a pastor is there when someone is in need,” Johnson says. “You can either go to their home, the hospital, or nursing home, and you sit with them, and you can hold their hands and you can pray. This virus just doesn’t allow for this.”

Staying grounded through faith

When Rizwan Syed contracted the virus last October, an ambulance rushed him to the hospital in Huntsville, where he was diagnosed with pneumonia. The experience was traumatic as he kept thinking of what would become of his wife and children should something happen to him. But expressions of concern and support from fellow members of the Huntsville Islamic Center, the mosque he and his family attend, helped keep him grounded through the ordeal.

“When I was in the hospital,” he says, “close community, whoever had my number, called or texted me. They were sending me prayers.”

The mosque has remained open during the pandemic and implemented all the prescribed precautions—masks, hand sanitizer stations, and social distancing. Medical professionals who attend the center are providing a free clinic for community members each Sunday, even offering COVID-19 vaccinations at no charge.

Like the Islamic Center, many churches have stepped up their efforts to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, and help the hurting. First Missionary Baptist Church in Huntsville held a series of food drives last year, and it has partnered with the state agriculture department to continue providing food to families in need.

Carolyn Landry, an associate minister at the church, began helping with its counseling services in response to a 300 percent spike in demand. “We are going through a health crisis, economic crisis, and a crisis of racial justice,” she says. “You have people dealing with feelings of isolation, dealing with grief from the loss of loved ones, parents of children who are having a hard time adjusting to all the changes.”

The crisis of racial justice has been a top concern for Rev. Demetrius Hicks, a pastor at Iron City Church in Birmingham. Hicks has spent a good amount of time talking to his young congregation—mostly students from the nearby University of Alabama at Birmingham—about the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and, more recently, six women of Asian descent in Atlanta.

Living in the birthplace of the civil rights movement, Hicks harkens back to the days when the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched the streets of Birmingham and Montgomery.

“One of the things I love about Dr. King is he saw beyond the day that they were living in,” Hicks says. “He saw the end, and I think that’s what kept him fighting and doing the things that he was called to do. And I live in that legacy of fighters and survivors.”

This work was supported by the National Geographic Society's COVID-19 Emergency Fund for Journalists.

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