By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
OKOLONA – Hope springs eternal, so said the poet, and Christians in Chickasaw and Monroe counties are breathing life into those words.
The EF-5 tornado that in April tore through Okolona on its way to destroy Smithville wreaked havoc here, but since the winds subsided churches haven’t ceased rebuilding homes and lives.
In early October the Rev. Alan Atkinson stood on a slab of concrete that used to be Pleasant Grove Missionary Baptist Church. The sky was a perfect blue, not a cloud in sight, and the blinding sun shone down on the army of volunteers that moved all around the cheerful pastor. The volunteers were white and black, old and young, male and female. Some were neighbors. Others had come from churches in Tupelo, Saltillo and Houston. Watching over the work was a grizzled old contractor from Okolona First Baptist Church.
The spring storm claimed the homes of four of Atkinson’s flock, as well as the life of his associate pastor’s wife, Betty Plant. On this day there was good will to spare, but there wasn’t a brick standing on top of a brick, yet.
Atkinson was undeterred. “This is going to be all right, praise God,” he said, surveying the landscape.
Just north of where Atkinson stood a group from the grassroots Christian organization Adopt a Family was busy working on two other houses.
The Rev. Eric Boykin was bounding along a rugged gravel road in his Jeep with no doors, headed north toward another build site. “This tornado has done what people have been trying to do for years,” he said over the howl of the wind. “It’s brought people together,” he said.
United Methodists, Presbyterians, Mennonites, Catholics, Episcopalians and a whole slew of Baptists are just some of the denominations that have joined hands to help their neighbors.
“I’ve never seen anything like it. No revival or ecumenical prayer service I’ve ever seen even comes close,” said Boykin, pastor of Okolona First Baptist Church. He rattled off a laundry list of contractors who’d donated time and materials for the dozens of rebuilds members Okolona First Baptist and other local churches, like Egypt Baptist Church and Parkway Baptist in Houston have undertaken.
In some cases FEMA and insurance companies helped out. The churches made up the difference through benevolence funds.
Boykin arrived at the home of Mary Ruth Ellis – that is, what used to be her home. In a matter of days teams of Christians, including members of her own Boone’s Chapel United Methodist Church, had erected a frame for Ellis’ new home. It looked as sound as any master carpenter could have built. A charcoal barbecue burned in the backyard where women prepared a meal of chicken, slaw, beans and potato salad. “It’s tailgating food,” said Boykin, forking in a mouthful. “What men like.”
The name of God was on everybody’s lips, and Ellis was near tears with gratitude. She and her late husband raised their young ones in this home. In the old days he helped his neighbors put in their crops when the window of fair weather started to close. Now, long after his death, neighbors were helping his widow rebuild her home.
“This is just the church being the church, doing what the church is supposed to do,” one man said, nail gun in hand. “You don’t need government to do it, or the government reaching in your pocket to do it. You don’t need a big organization.”
The Bible says God created the world in six days. A Mississippi-based nonprofit that came to Monroe and Chickasaw counties this week can’t compete with that, but it’s done pretty well, nonetheless. On Oct. 29, Eight Days of Hope arrived and since then Smithville, Wren, Chapel Grove, Buena Vista, Okolona and Hackleburg, Ala., have been loud with the sounds of hammering, sawing and praying.
Eight Days started in 2005 as a grassroots, Christian response to Hurricane Katrina. This week more than 1,400 volunteers from 43 states and two continents came to Northeast Mississippi to pitch in. They’ve worked on 60 homes in Chickasaw and Monroe counties. President Steve Tybor, a member of First Baptist Church in Tupelo, estimated that 80 percent of those volunteers learned about Eight Days through American Family Radio.
Young Lee Prater from Kansas was one of them. Wednesday he was putting up dry wall inside Ellis’ house like an old pro. Mike and Deb Meyers made the trip from Sugar Creek, Ohio, because they can envision the day when they might need their fellow Christians to come to their aid.
The volunteers, most of whom are leaving today, paid their own travel expenses. Most stayed in hotels or in the homes of fellow Christians.
Pleasant Grove Church will be just about completed by the time the Eight Days volunteers break camp. Wednesday, church member Johnny Walker, 74, stood watching a team put shingles on the roof. He was visibly moved.
“You should have seen that fellow the other day,” he said. “He just shot up that building like Spider Man.”
Walker didn’t know what Pleasant Grove would have done if fellow Christians hadn’t stepped in to help. “It would have taken years,” Walker said, shielding his eyes from the honey-colored sunlight. “Years,” he said, looking back over the graveyard.
“This is just amazing. I don’t know what else to say.”