- Associated Press - Sunday, May 1, 2011

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (AP) | Macolee Muhammed accepted the prayer of a relief worker who stopped by what was left of her Birmingham home. It didn’t matter that she was Muslim and he was a Southern Baptist.

“If you came here to help, the only person who sent you was God,” she said.

The storms that roared across the South last week flattened churches and crushed the homes of pastors and parishioners in a ragged stretch from Mississippi to Virginia. At least 342 people were killed and thousands more hurt.

So on the first Sunday after the disaster, believers streamed into houses of worship to give thanks for being spared, to mourn the dead and to ponder impossible questions. Why did some survive without any explanation? Why did others die for no apparent reason?

Many people in this highly religious region saw God at work, even amid the devastation.

“God just put his big old arms around us,” said Peggy Blevins, 59, of Rainsville, Ala. “I don’t understand why he takes some people and leaves others. But I thank him just the same for protecting us.”

When the storm drew near, she and her family hid in a hallway of their house. She believes they survived only because some trees fell on the house, pinning it down and preventing the tornado from hurling it through the air.

“To some people it might sound cold, but God does have a plan,” Ms. Blevins said. “I know I sound like one of those Southern Baptists, but I am.”

In most small towns around here, churches serve as community centers, town halls and gymnasiums. Besides Sunday services, they host Boy Scout troop meetings, neighborhood voting, bake sales, basketball games and Wednesday night prayer meetings.

Some churches were wiped out. Some of those left standing have become headquarters for rebuilding.

American Christian Academy, a private school in Tuscaloosa, hosted a service at a football stadium within walking distance of neighborhoods where several churches were wiped out. The school distributed food, clothes, Bibles and other supplies to residents who came to worship.

“We’re hoping to feed them and give them some spiritual food,” said Rob Cain, the school’s athletic director and campus pastor.

Lisa Thompson, 37, her fiance and her daughter came to the service because they don’t know if their church, College Hill Baptist Church, survived. They haven’t made it past the police checkpoints that have sealed off the area.

“My faith is stronger now than ever,” she said. “I know God will test you, but it can’t be nothing but stronger.”

Poplar Springs Baptist Church in Ringgold, Ga., has been transformed into an informal help center, dispatching volunteer chainsaw crews to saw down trees, handing out bottled water and feeding people who are without food and electricity.

Pastor Chris Petty said church members started to understand the destruction as they sent members to assist widows in the congregation after the storm.

“We just showed up at the church and started putting things together and sending people out and saying, ‘What do you need?’ ” said Mr. Petty, who had just guided a tractor-trailer carrying bottled water into the church parking lot.

In Cordova, Ala., about 40 people gathered Saturday around the wrecked Cordova Church of God trying to repair enough of the building to hold Sunday services. Most of the roof was shorn off by the twister, and a gaping hole let sunshine through the ceiling of the modest sanctuary. Volunteers sat in the pews quietly watching a worker try to patch up the hole. Others swept up debris and covered the roof with tarps.

At the edge of town, the storm punched a hole through a mural of the local high school’s “blue devil” mascot. A mural of the U.S. flag was spared.

Said college student Rachel Mitchell, 19, “Everybody in town is talking about that.”

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