- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2016

TULSA, Okla. (AP) - While on the way to church last March, pastor J. Malcolm Phipps Jr. saw no clues that a storm was brewing.

The sun was out. Birds were singing.

“You wouldn’t have known anything was wrong,” he said.

But the sky got dark, the wind picked up and rain began pouring during the praise and worship portion of a prayer meeting.

“Right as we finished up the prayer time, the sirens went off and dust started coming down from the ceiling,” Phipps said.

A tornado was bearing down on north Tulsa. Bethel Seventh-Day Adventist Church was in the path, according to the Tulsa World (https://bit.ly/2fPKGC2 ).

Phipps said the roof literally started to come off the church, so he and others raced out of the sanctuary and into the foyer.

“And no sooner had we ran out than the upstairs fell down into the sanctuary,” he said.

“A lady who was a little late to prayer service came in the front door, and no sooner did she come in the front door than the facade of the church fell down on where she would have been. That was all cinder block. As it was, we sheltered in an alcove in the lobby. None of us was hurt, but the building was pretty messed up and all the cars in the parking lot had various stages of damage, from broken-out windows to just paint damage from debris and whatever. But we all escaped unharmed.”

Ask Phipps what he is thankful about in regard to the tornado encounter and the answer is the obvious one. The Lord was looking out for folks. Nobody lost their life. Nobody was injured.

“That’s the biggest thing,” he said.

And then there’s this: His church is on the comeback trail.

Phipps said the people of Bethel Seventh-Day Adventist Church will end up with a practically new church. He said the basic shell structure will be the same, but the inside is going to be totally new.

Most other churches in the area have already been repaired, according to Phipps, who said it is taking longer to get his church rebuilt because of an insurance dispute. The settlement is significantly less than what the church hoped to receive, so creativity will factor into a makeover.

“What we had to do was redesign the building so that the repairs would fit the money we were getting, and that’s what is taking so long is the architect and the engineers are working on that,” Phipps said.

An optimistic target range for re-opening is April or May. Realistically, it could be June or July. Even if the rebuild is completed at the earliest of those possibilities, the congregation will have been displaced from the church for more than a year.

But here’s another thing to be thankful about: New Heights Christian Center rode to the rescue and offered to let Bethel Seventh-Day Adventist Church conduct services there. Phipps said he certainly wants to acknowledge New Heights Christian Center pastors Terry and Barbara Shannon for allowing use of their facility.

“They reciprocated because, while they were building their church, they used ours,” Phipps said. “It’s good to have those kinds of relationships.”

Phipps said his church had other options, too. He said he is part of the North Tulsa Baptist Ministers Conference “and many of the brothers in that conference were willing to open their doors to us as well. We would not have been homeless.”

Unfortunately, Bethel had to suspend some of its ministry services until its facilities can be restored for use.

“One of the biggest things we had was a food pantry,” Phipps said. “Every other Wednesday, we served the community. In cooperation with the food pantry, we had a soup kitchen. We were the only soup kitchen in north Tulsa, so we had quite a ministry going there. We were helping the community and, as a result, there were those who found the Lord through our ministry. It’s very disappointing (to put programs on hold) because we were doing pretty good when this happened. We just have to rebuild and restart.”

Phipps said 15 to 20 people usually visited the soup kitchen for hot meals. Those in need often ate at the soup kitchen while food boxes were being prepared for them to take home. Phipps said there is “no doubt” the church was doing good work, not only in feeding the hungry, but also with a Pathfinders youth ministry.

“We had a drill team, a drum corps, along with that,” Phipps said. “They were pretty good. We are looking forward to trying to reinstitute that as well.”

Phipps said there was never any doubt the church was going to rebuild. Ella Suttle, a clerk at the church and a women’s ministry district leader for northeastern Oklahoma, is thankful to have a replacement facility for worship, “but this is like going on vacation and coming back home. You can’t wait to sleep in your own bed.”

So Suttle is looking forward to the day when repairs are completed. She wasn’t at the church when the tornado arrived, but her husband was there and she was frightened for him and others.

“Oh my God, take care of everybody,” she thought at the time. “He answered our prayers because it could have been worse.”

Said Phipps, “The biggest thing we learned - and I can’t really say we learned it, it’s just something we knew and it was reiterated or it strengthened our conviction in it - is that there is a God who sees all and oversees all. And he keeps his word that all things work together for good for those who love God.”

The whole tornado scare lasted only three to five minutes, according to Phipps, who said his priority was making sure everyone got to a safe place.

“After it was over, it was like nothing happened,” he said. “The sun came back out. Birds were singing again.”

And the birds will sing again from atop a rebuilt church.


Information from: Tulsa World, https://www.tulsaworld.com

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