Calvary Chapel Newnan, GA, Trusting God in the Wake of Devastation
Story by Trinity Grau
Photos courtesy of Calvary Chapel Newnan, GA
On the night of March 25, the staff and members of Calvary Chapel Newnan, GA, went to bed knowing that strong storms had been blowing though Alabama and Georgia that day. They were accustomed to the thunderstorms so common in the South as the winter weather changes and begins to grow warmer. But they couldn’t know that an EF-4 tornado, packing 170-mph winds, was building—and heading straight towards them. As the night wore on and residents were alerted to the storm’s proximity, many fled to their basements and to neighbors’ homes, watching the weather radar on their phones as they waited for the massive storm to pass.
Many from the church, including Assistant Pastor JP Garrison, were able to share that their homes, though in the path of the storm, were spared with only minor damage. This miraculous turn of events saved many, though the same could not be said for the church campus. The tornado devastated their church building—but not their spirits or their trust in the Lord. The tragedy would draw them closer to God and open opportunities to bless their community.
“In whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” Job 12:10
Two volunteers from Calvary Chapel Heartland in Fort Valley, GA, help set up a staging area for disaster relief in Newnan, GA. On the night of March 25-26, an EF-4 tornado devasted the city, causing severe damage to Calvary Chapel Newnan. The staging area is located at the home of a church member, whose house sustained only minor damage. Many of the neighbors’ homes were destroyed.
Discovering the Damage
Senior Pastor Joel Dover had to park two blocks away from the church the following morning to hike into the destruction area, following the sheriff’s announcement that half the town had been completely cut off due to road blockage. He had to carefully maneuver around the power lines and trees that littered the path. He found that the tornado had whipped through entire sections of the church campus, shattering windows and damaging furniture, rooms, and materials that would need to be replaced or repaired. The tin roof was completely ripped off.
Though much of the brick foundation remained, much work remained to be done. Church staff returned to the campus to salvage any valuable items that had survived the storm. CC Newnan, started by Pastor Joel as a home fellowship in 2014, moved into this building in August 2018.
CC Newnan after the tornado. The tornado ripped away the church’s metal roof, and some of the roofing landed in nearby trees. The children’s playground was damaged as well.
Pastor Joel recounted thankfully that the campus was empty during the storm, and no one from either congregation or staff was injured. “So even though it’s a loss, at the end of the day, it’s [just] a building.” He further explained, “The church isn’t the building—it’s the body [of believers]—and we wanted to be helping in the community.”
Joel urged the church body to simply trust Christ. “He is still on the throne of heaven … Let’s just love on each other. Look at your neighbors,” he instructed. “If there are needs we can meet, look around for them. God is faithful. I can promise you that this situation that we’re all in seems like [a lot], but our God is in the business of redemption. He doesn’t just redeem souls, he redeems situations.”
Serving & Being Served
Even as Joel and his church family worked to clean up and recover from the losses sustained, they offered to help others who had also suffered the effects of the storm. Officials reported on March 29 that 1,744 homes were impacted—70 of them destroyed and 120 of them sustaining major damage, even as damage assessments continued.
Fixing the damage hasn’t been easy. The chairs in the building were covered with glass shards; removing them was a precarious process. Many were helping to move what could be salvaged to storage. Tin from the roof building had been stripped and strewn through the parking lot and the remaining foliage. Moving all of the remaining materials would be a dangerous project.
“You will keep him in perfect peace, whose mind is stayed on You, because he trusts in You.” Isaiah 26:3
Four CC Newnan members work outside the church cleaning out a “Welcome Home” table used to store visitor cards and Bibles. It sustained so much water damage that it couldn’t be used again.
The generosity of the Christian community to staff, congregants, and others in the surrounding area was overwhelming following the initial cleanup. Pastor Joel was immensely grateful that several other local churches in the area passed on information and offered assistance and prayers.
A rescue team from Calvary Chapel Lynchburg, VA, was alerted to head down by the following afternoon. Members of Calvary Chapel Heartland in Fort Valley, GA, arrived the following week, bringing a truckload of supplies, including a generator, for the disaster staging area Calvary Newnan was prepping to provide essential products to Newnan residents. Calvary Chapel Columbus, GA, also sent volunteers to help.
Professional disaster relief teams from Samaritan’s Purse and Convoy of Hope arrived to take over the majority of organized efforts in the community. As they gave to Calvary Newnan, Joel said, the church gave back, sending volunteers out to help tarp buildings, cut trees, and offer resources to those in need.
A group of men, mostly from CC Newnan, attempt to carefully vacuum out glass shards from soaked worship center chairs—the tornado shattered the windows. The chairs could not be salvaged.
Many volunteers from the church body also volunteered in the clean-up efforts. Joel acknowledged, “Our church family rose up to help us in a huge way! We also had significant help from the homeschool community where our children attend; several families came to help us sort through and salvage at the church building.”
Though the church was damaged, the staff was determined to offer Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday services. Pastor Joel proclaimed, “Someway, somehow, we are going to have Easter Sunday. We are going to press on. It’s all about Jesus.”
But as it is written: “Eye has not seen, nor ear heard, nor have entered into the heart of man the things which God has prepared for those who love Him.” 1 Corinthians 2:9
The simple Palm Sunday service—just two days after the tornado—was conducted from Pastor Joel’s residence. Even without a worship team or congregation on-site, Joel was still determined to share how Jesus came to persevere and fulfill Bible prophecy. The message was particularly timely. During the lead-up to Resurrection Sunday, it was clear that the church body was to learn the lesson that Christ had demonstrated 2,000 years ago: God works even through our present suffering. “If there’s one thing I want our church family to understand, it’s that being a follower of Christ doesn’t spare us from suffering,” Joel observed.
During a clean-out day, CC Newnan sent out three teams to serve the community by cutting down trees and tarping roofs. This group remained behind to determine what was salvageable from the church building.
Easter Sunday arrived the following weekend with good news. CC Newnan’s children’s ministry leader was able to provide the church with access to the local Madras Middle School gym. The blessing of having a place to meet meant that the church would be able to move audio and video equipment in time for the service. Together, they persevered as a church body to celebrate the resurrection of Christ and the blessing of being together on that day. Pastor Joel taught a poignant message on the power of Jesus’ resurrection and the stunning hope that He promises to the church.
A Hopeful Future
As Calvary Newnan moves forward, there is still much work to be done. Pastor Joel has asked his church to pray for him as he leads them through the disaster, following an already difficult year. The damage and loss will take more than a few weeks to repair, and there are many in the fellowship who will still need aid.
Inside CC Newnan’s worship center, members stripped the ceiling of lights, cables, and projectors used in services. The fellowship has been meeting in a middle school gym since the storm.
Yet Joel and the staff are hopeful as they move forward. “It’s just a matter of when, not if. The Lord has His hand on all of this,” he confidently declared. In a recent live Facebook update, he was smiling and explaining their plans to continue helping the community and prepare a more permanent place for the church to flock to. Though they are in a season of roaming, Joel concluded, “We need to precede with a sense of hope, a sense of expectation, and a sense of peace. More than ever, we need to rely on God.”
“Peace I [Jesus] leave with you, My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid.” John 14:27
A tree came down directly into the home of CC Newnan members Kevin and Amy DeGraff; it will have to be rebuilt. Kevin, carrying a leaf blower, is getting assistance from two men from Calvary Chapel Lynchburg, VA.
Men from CC Lynchburg carry out tree stumps and branches from Kevin DeGraff’s home.
White remnants of the roof insulation at CC Newnan litter the parking lot. Senior Pastor Joel Dover praised the efforts of his hard-working congregation, who have pulled together to help restore the church building and assist the community.
All verses above are quoted from the New King James Version, unless otherwise noted.
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