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On first Sunday since tornado, Oklahomans gather to worship, mourn

May 26, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts
  • President Obama tours the devastation Sunday in Moore, Okla., left by last week's tornado that ripped through the Oklahoma City area, killing 24.
President Obama tours the devastation Sunday in Moore, Okla., left by last… (Erik S. Lesser / EPA )

MOORE, Okla. -- Coming up on a week after the tornado that killed 24 people and destroyed a large swath of the Oklahoma City area, people gathered throughout the community Sunday to pray, to mourn and to try to make some kind of sense out of such loss. 

President Obama commented on how difficult it was to comprehend the damage as he toured the area Sunday, taking in the tornado's toll and talking to residents, local leaders and first responders.

"Everywhere, fellow Americans are praying with you, they’re thinking about you, and they want to help," Obama said.

At Southgate Baptist Church, in one of the areas hardest hit by the tornado, the congregation gathered under a pavilion to worship. Although the church itself was intact, debris littered the churchyard and the building had no electricity.

PHOTOS: Powerful tornado slams Oklahoma

"I think it's easy for people to be mad at God for what's happened," said Noah Hill, the church's youth pastor. "But what we've seen here is how God has protected and cared for so many people."

The parking lot was still being claimed by volunteer groups, so congregants were waved into an open field to park by Mark Fain, a congregant. A few stopped to poke fun at the yellow vest and rubber boots he wore.

But it's not as though most came in their typical Sunday best. Instead, they wore work jeans, shorts, boots and T-shirts. A long day of labor was ahead. If they weren't working on their own property, they were pitching in to help someone else.

"How you doing?" Fain, a pharmacist, asked one woman driving in.

"Better than most, captain!" she replied.

Gayla and Dick McIntire carried folding chairs. She also had her bible.

"I'm just glad we have a place to worship this morning," Dick said.

"We've got a lot to be thankful for," said his wife, mostly because their home and family were spared.

Hill, the youth pastor, moved to Moore in December from Arkansas, and recently bought a house for his family. He had just made his second payment, but now the house will have to be demolished.

"You sold me a house in a tornado zone!" Hill said teasingly to his real estate agent, a fellow congregant.

Despite the toll exacted by the tornado, the kind of devastation that could shake a person's faith, Hill said he has instead tried to fix his focus on the things that reaffirm it, such as the generosity of others -- some from as far away as Australia -- who have offered help. Or the fact that members of his youth group were fine. Or the stories of survival he'd heard in recent days.

One such story was that of a church member who had huddled in a hallway of his home with his wife as the twister approached. After it had blown through, that hallway was the only part of the home left standing.

"That's our church, gathered together," Hill said, nodding to the congregation sitting in lawn chairs under the pavilion, their heads down in prayer.

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Twitter: @haileybranson

hailey.branson@latimes.com

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