By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
SMITHVILLE – Folks in Smithville don’t talk about heaven as an abstract concept. For them, it’s a place every bit as real as Phil Goodwin’s eating joint, where the men of town gathered to drink coffee, as real as Melanie Edwards’ diner and Allen Duncan’s hardware store.
The EF-5 tornado that ravaged this small town on April 27 dashed those places to splinters. But heaven, as any survivor will tell you, is still there, and it’s where 15 of Smithville’s residents now abide.
“This isn’t the end of the world, but it’s a big bump in the road,” said T. J. Armstrong, an old man who’s seen the ravages of war and who can remember when the road through Smithville was dirt and gravel and mules carried logs to the sawmill.
In a strange way, Armstrong said, at least for a while, the ferocity of the twister has sent the town back to a level of primitiveness that surpasses even those early days.
No World War II vet is easily shaken by death, but the devastation in Smithville is almost more than even Armstrong can stand.
“It’s like waking up in a different world,” said Armstrong, 87, fighting back tears. He sat under a tent behind what used to be Smithville First Freewill Baptist Church, one of five churches claimed by the storm.
“You know where things are supposed to be, but you can’t even recognize your own hometown,” he said.
On the first Christian Sabbath after the tornado, along a nearly two-mile stretch that had been laid waste less than a week earlier, “worship erupted” as one Smithville resident put it. Bulldozers and backhoes continued to pile up debris. The town still looked like someone had picked it up, shaken it and slammed it down, but voices singing “Amazing Grace” rang out over Young Memorial Garden Cemetery, where gravestones weighing hundreds of pounds had been plucked from the earth like Easter lilies.
Television cameras from big news organizations sent feeds all over the country, and reporters mingled with the crowds, asking folks how they could remain grateful in the face of such destruction.
The answers they gave weren’t complicated, and in their plain-spoken drawls, exuding Southern politeness, the residents of Smithville repeated it time and again.
“The God we lean on is a God of love,” said the Rev. Wes White, pastor of Smithville Baptist Church, who on Sunday preached from under a tent in front of the wreckage of his church.
“We don’t always understand God’s ways,” said White. “But we know the power of Jesus’ resurrection will shine through all this.”
Not God’s wrath
A sign put up on the outskirts of Smithville some time ago by two local churches reads, “This community is claimed for Christ and protected by prayer.”
For generations Smithvillians have been busy building furniture, raising kids and growing cotton and soybeans. Pondering the theological implications of natural disasters and the problem of evil is something most have left to their preachers.
Theirs is an attitude of devotion and acceptance, and the fact that their town has been leveled hasn’t changed that.
“This is not God’s wrath,” said Connie Yielding, shaking her head as a sad looked descended over her face.
Farther west, in the mostly black community of Darden, the name of God was also on the lips of those who’d lost everything.
“God left me my most precious possessions, my wife and my kids,” said Gary Moore, as he sifted through a pile of rubble unrecognizable as his home.
On Friday, two days after the tornado, the sky over Darden was clear and blue. With his thick, powerful arms Moore threw aside bricks and ceiling beams looking for anything salvageable. Ten houses to the south and east of Moore, all belonging to his relatives, were completely destroyed.
Tim Bowens, a son of Okolona who made it in the NFL, brought his recreational vehicle up from Miami to give his kinfolks a place to cool off and rest as they waded through the wreckage.
Faith and family, as one Smithville resident put it, are the bedrocks of life in Monroe County.
“People ask if we’ve lost anyone, if we had any family who died in the storm,” said Yielding.
“In a town the size of Smithville, everybody knows everybody, and you couldn’t find one person out here who hasn’t lost somebody,” she said.
Smithville residents remember the tornado and the moments that followed not as a clear sequence of events but as a series of images. There were hard, strong men crying as the body of someone they knew was pulled from the rubble. There was a blue utility shed at the foot of the water tower that served as a morgue. Several people recall seeing a rainbow behind what was left of City Hall shortly after the twister passed, but nobody had time to stop and think because the first of the broken and dead were being brought in.
It all means something, Smithville residents say, something profound and unknowable in the beautiful and sometimes agonizing will of God.
Sunday afternoon Smithville residents filled the Pickle Funeral Home in the nearby town of Amory, where numerous tornado victims were laid out or were being prepared.
These were the first of many visitations and funerals to come over the following week.
The sad, bluegrass sound of “Go Rest High on that Mountain” filled the funeral home as the bodies of Roy Lee Estis and his wife, Ruth, were wheeled into the chapel.
When the tornado hit, Peanut, as everybody knew him, wouldn’t leave his bride. She was on oxygen and couldn’t make it to the shelter. The Vietnam vet clung fiercely to his wife until the tornado ripped her from his strong grasp.
Peanut suffered a heart attack and died the next day in the hospital.
In a nearby room, the body of Lucille Parker, a member of Cross Bound Church, was being prepared for visitation.
“She was a real lady, always had her hair and makeup done perfectly,” remembered a much younger church member. “I tried to be like her.”
Denial in the face of tragedy is completely different from the certainty that comes from strong, religious faith.
The people of Smithville are certain. They’re certain God loves them. They’re certain those claimed by the storm are in a better place and, someday soon, the town will be rebuilt and people will start smiling and laughing again.
“Death is an enemy, the Bible tells us that,” said the Rev. Ryan Musgrove, as he addressed his friends with the bodies of the Estises laying before him.
But the storm, Musgrove said, has given the good people of Smithville a chance to witness to the world.
“This is our moment to show everybody who’s watching,” said Musgrove. “This is how people who love Jesus act.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510 or firstname.lastname@example.org.