“Sometimes God calms the storm. Sometimes he lets the storm rage and calms the child.”
–from a memorial plaque at Goshen United Methodist Church, Piedmont, Alabama
She emerged from the church ruins–split beams and shattered bricks, bits and pieces of altar and broken pew, palm leaves and dust-covered hymnals–all strewn about like Lincoln logs carelessly dumped by a child. Her left eye was nearly swollen shut, and she moved clumsily through the rubble, still dazed and unbelieving. In her right hand she clutched a palm frond like the one she had waved the day before in commemoration of Jesus’ arrival. But Jesus had not come–only a strong, swirling wind, a falling sky and the bewildering fog and acrid aroma of senseless death. On Palm Sunday 1994, neither saint nor sinner had found sanctuary within the walls of Goshen United Methodist Church.
Two handsome, white-haired men in Sunday suits accompanied her. Their eyes gazed to and fro across the crowd, and each gently held one of her elbows, paying special attention to bear her safely across the uneven debri. They seemed to walk in perfect synchrony, pausing and stopping as she would now and then reach down to retrieve another piece of palm leaf or some other shattered remnant. Several photographers and reporters were also on the scene, sending the images of a grieving mother and pastor across the globe, live, via satellite.
Another reporter was rushing to meet a deadline and had almost finished loading the last of his equipment into his Ford Explorer when he spotted her moving among the ruins, palm frond in hand. It had been a long and difficult day, but he was emotionally hardened from years spent sifting through the aftermath of natural disasters and crawling on his belly amid the hot fury of battles in far-flung places. He had interviewed scores of survivors, officials and friends, and his camerman had shot enough footage to satisfy even the most insatiable connoisseur of tragedy. When he saw her, a voice inside him pleaded to simply leave well enough alone, but there was just something about that palm leaf. The image of a minister and mother-in-mourning standing amid the rubble of God’s crumbled house was simply too tempting to resist.
He motioned for his camerman to retrieve the Sony and to follow him up the hill toward the church. As he walked, he carefully crafted the question in his mind, a missile designed for maximum impact. She saw her inquisitor and his accomplice approaching and steeled herself for yet another painful probing. Her companions saw them too, and they moved closer and tightened their grip, standing like two sentries at the ready.
“So,” the reporter rudely quizzed, “has your faith been shattered?”
She ignored the annoying way he held the microphone an inch from her face and smiled at him, her compassion beaming through her grief.
“No,” she gently laughed,”my faith is not shattered.” She leaned closer to impart to him the secret of her strength. He leaned foward too, no doubt expecting her next words to break off into a trail of sobs and tears.
“My faith is what sustains me.”
Now this was not the answer he had expected. Stunned silence and a long, awkward pause would have made for better footage. Gasping sobs and mournful wails, live, via satellite, could have tugged at the heartstrings of a watching world. But there were no fulminating denials or prolonged pathos on this day–only a minister and mother-in-mourning cutting against the grain and delivering the sermon of her life.
The encounter ended quickly, and the reporter turned toward his truck, stunned and somewhat disappointed, but hopeful that the interview would placate his handlers and satisfy the masses. The thought had already occurred to him that this would probably require some editing.
She turned again to the fallen church, and the floodgates opened once more. As her one good eye clouded with tears, the contours and colors of the surrounding scene merged into shapless splotches of grey, white, and black. For a moment, the walls of the church seemed to stand erect and there was that jolting sense of relief that one feels when waking from a very bad dream. But soon the prickly pain returned and her face flushed warm and red once again with a fresh wave of grief. She remembered that this was no dream, that in fact, her dream had been shattered the day before, as surely as the pieces of brick, pew and altar which lay scattered at her feet.
And then through the fog, she first sensed movement, then the outlines of people, and finally she saw clearly the painful faces of those who had come to take their place beside her on the mourner’s bench. All the while, the two white-haired men in Sunday suits stood beside her, their eyes scanning to and fro over the gathered crowd.
On March 27, 1994, a series of “supercells” containing numerous tornadoes moved through North Alabama, Georgia and the Carolinas. Forty-two people died that day, including 20 parishoners at the Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama where Palm Sunday services were in progress. Among the dead was Hannah Clem, the 4-year-old daughter of one of the pastors, the Rev. Kelly Clem.
The evening after the tragedy, I was watching the news when a reporter asked Rev. Clem if her faith “had been shattered.” I wrote “Calling All Angels” the next day, and the following Sunday the story appeared in the bulletin of my church. In those pre-internet days, it soon made the rounds among several churches in North Alabama via “snail mail” and fax. For the record, “Calling All Angels” was a title I chose on March 29, 1994, two years before the music group Alabama recorded “Calling All Angels” in 1996 and long before Lenny Kravitz recorded yet another song with the same title in 2004.
On this Palm Sunday 2006, there are many who have lost loved ones in the wake of similar killer tornadoes in the South and Midwest over the past couple of weeks. Our prayers go with the survivors who have lost both homes and family. May this story of Pastor Clem’s faith in the face of similar tragedy remind us all that God “calms his children” who are caught in the swirling storms of life.