- Associated Press - Saturday, October 25, 2014

PETAL, Miss. (AP) - Surveying the barren plot of land where Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church’s sanctuary once stood, the Rev. Carl Burkett can’t help but smile.

While he and his congregation lost a portion of their church in the Feb. 10, 2013, tornado that ripped through the Pine Belt, there have been many blessings found amid the rubble.

One is the construction of a new sanctuary.

After more than a year and a half of waiting, the church will celebrate a ground-breaking ceremony on Nov. 2 at the site on Mississippi Highway 42.

“We planning on a big evening,” Burkett said. “What we’re going to do is have service and go on out on the grounds. We’ll just take the service out on the grounds, and when we’re through, then we’ll dismiss.”

Burkett said he’s blessed to have such a patient, faithful congregation, and he’s thankful for the new opportunities the church will experience in the future.

“My congregation is overjoyed about our ground breaking,” he said. “We’ve been blessed in the new construction because we’ll have some more room. What gives me so much joy is that it’s going to be new from the bottom to the top. It’s not going to be a renovation. … We haven’t seen anything like that. The only thing we’ve done is add on - or patched on - to the old.”

Built in 1900, Burkett said the church’s old sanctuary held many memories. Each wooden and bricked wall symbolized the messages he heard and the names and faces of the men and women who sat in the church’s pews with him every Sunday.

Now, Burkett and his congregation are excited to make new memories.

“I told (my congregation) the other day when we go out there, this means this is the beginning of a new beginning for the Mount Vernon Missionary Baptist Church,” he said. “Especially for the physical building. We’ve never gone this way before, but we’re going with the Lord.”

Losing their worship space, congregation members found themselves looking for alternate places to meet on Sundays.

Church member Tom Hardges said he and his church family were able to find accommodations around Petal until the church’s fellowship hall and classrooms were able to be repaired.

“The City of Petal was great to us,” he said. “They let us use what was the Senior Center for a while, and when they gave the building to the 3-D School, we used the Civic Center for a while.”

Eventually, necessary repairs to the remaining portions of Mount Vernon were made, allowing church members the chance to worship in familiar surroundings.

“We were out for about six months, but now we’re back in and rolling right along,” Hardges said.

Hardges said he believes everything happens for a reason.

“Believe it or not, prior to this we started to look at building a bigger place. We were taking up money in a building fund,” he said. “And then this happened.”

Burkett said while it’s taken more than a year and a half to get everything in order, he’s glad that construction will begin shortly and that his congregation has been patient and faithful.

“With the help of our insurance and what we had, we’re going to make it,” he said. “I am really satisfied with what’s going on and how things are turning out. . (My congregation has) been doing good. Since the storm, we haven’t missed a Sunday from having church.”

Hardges said he’s thankful his pastor will be seeing a new phase in the church’s history.

“I hope that we can get things done, and that Pastor Burkett can have many more years to be in a new church,” he said. “That will mean so much to me because he means a lot to me.”

Ernest Collins, who serves as the chairman of Mount Vernon’s deacon board, said seeing the damage the tornado left in its wake was heartbreaking, but he’s been thankful for the blessings God has provided his church family since the storm.

“We’ve been blessed because we’re in a smaller setting, and it’s bringing us closer together,” he said. “(The tornado) could have destroyed the complete fellowship hall and the sanctuary, but it didn’t.”

Collins said with the fellowship hall currently doubling as the church’s sanctuary, worship services are better than ever and great things are happening for Mount Vernon.

“Our membership is growing,” he said. “We’ve even met with (Petal) First Baptist Church, and we’ve had church services on more than one or two occasions with them.”

Collins said several area churches have reached out and provided support to his church family.

“It’s just all of God’s people coming together,” he said. “We’ve been blessed. We really have.”

Burkett said it’s been a joy to get to know the pastors and congregation members at Crestview, Carterville and Petal First Baptist churches.

Burkett said he never would have imagined a tornado would bring about so many blessings to him and his congregation.

“It’s amazing what a tragedy can do for a community,” he said. “It brings us together.”

Petal First Baptist Senior Pastor Brad Eubank said he and his family hadn’t been in Petal for a full year before the tornado hit the city.

After seeing the damage the tornado did to Mount Vernon, Eubank said he began searching for the pastor of the church on the hill.

“I could never get him on the phone,” he said. “So on Tuesday or Wednesday (after the tornado), I just drove up in the parking lot. I stopped somebody and said, ‘I’m trying to get ahold of the pastor of this church.’”

Eubank said it just so happened he was speaking to Burkett at the time.

After offering his church’s facilities to Burkett and his congregation, a relationship between the two churches was formed.

“”I told Pastor Eubank the other day, ‘When (the tornado) first happened, I wondered why the Lord was doing this, but then He showed me. He said, ‘You don’t know Pastor Eubank and I want you to get acquainted with him and his congregation.’ And we have done that,” Burkett said.

Since forming a friendship, both men have been guest speakers at the other’s church and their congregations have gotten together numerous times.

“You never know how nice people are until you really need them,” Burkett said.

Eubank said he and his congregation are excited to be able to celebrate Mount Vernon’s upcoming ground-breaking ceremony.

“We’re excited for them to break ground,” he said. “We’re ready to worship with them.”

___

Information from: The Hattiesburg American, http://www.hattiesburgamerican.com

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