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In Oklahoma, a mix of grief, gratitude at church services

President Obama visits the tornado-stricken community of Moore and promises to be 'with you every step of the way.'

May 26, 2013|By Hailey Branson-Potts, Los Angeles Times
  • President Obama hugs a school official as he visits Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla. The school was leveled in last week's tornado.
President Obama hugs a school official as he visits Plaza Towers Elementary… (Carolyn Kaster / Associated…)

MOORE, Okla. — They filled the sanctuary after one of the worst weeks they had ever known.

The tornado that tore through the Oklahoma City area killed two dozen people, including 10 children. It destroyed homes. It wiped away mementos. It upended lives.

But the crowd hadn't come on this Sunday evening to dwell. They wanted to push forward, to reclaim what they could and to rebuild what they couldn't. They were here to pray for the strength to persevere.

PHOTOS: Oklahoma tornado

"We choose not to walk as victims, Lord," Dennis Jernigan, the worship leader, prayed at First Baptist Church in Moore.

Nearly a week after the tornado, the focus was on prayer, mourning and trying to make sense of such loss. Earlier in the day, people gathered for morning worship, and President Obama visited the devastated areas to offer reassurance and support.

Oklahomans have been a source of inspiration because of "their love, their courage and their fellowship," Obama said — what everyone here calls the Oklahoma standard.

"This is a strong community with strong character," Obama said. "There's no doubt they're going to bounce back. But they need help — just like any of us would need help if we saw the kind of devastation that we're seeing here."

The tornado destroyed about 1,200 homes, Obama said, and damaged another 12,000.

He spoke with storm victims, first responders and local leaders, vowing that the federal government would be "with you every step of the way."

During the evening prayer service at First Baptist Church, Gov. Mary Fallin urged people to "stay strong during these challenging times." She recited a line from Psalms: "God is our refuge."

Fallin recalled walking through the campus of Plaza Towers Elementary School, where seven children died. She held up a battered poster she found in the debris with handwritten "school rules."

The last rule: "Always do your very best."

"There have been a lot of miracles talked about this week, along with the tragedies," she said.

Another speaker at the service was Waynel Mayes, a first-grade teacher at devastated Briarwood Elementary School in Oklahoma City. She brought a group of Moore schoolchildren who survived the tornado. The students — the girls in dresses, the boys in khakis — each carried a flower and all sang "Jesus Loves Me." The crowd gave them a standing ovation.

Mayes recalled singing that song and others with her students as the tornado enveloped them.

"I just kept singing louder and louder, and debris just started falling everywhere around us," she said. "I just kept singing and then it stopped. ... I started calling out their names and they started answering, and I could hear them."

She told the frightened students a "real live hero" was coming to rescue them from the rubble.

"You mean K.D.?" one of them asked, referring to Oklahoma City Thunder player Kevin Durant.

No, she told them, she meant a police officer or a firefighter.

Everyone at Briarwood survived.

There was a similar mood of hope and determination at morning services at Southgate Baptist Church, where worshipers gathered under a pavilion. The church was intact, but debris littered the churchyard and the building had no electricity.

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

Volunteers were serving meals and offering massages at Southgate and other churches. Many of them wore T-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Help Moore" and "I Am the Oklahoma Standard."

Many worshipers arrived in work jeans, shorts, boots and T-shirts. A long day of labor lay ahead. If they weren't working on their own property, they were helping someone else.

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 McIntire said.

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

The congregation held hands in the air as they sang "Amazing Grace" and "America the Beautiful." They prayed for those in need: "May their needs be met."

Although the service took place amid devastation, it had a strong sense of gratitude — not only for the volunteers, but for the intangible things the tornado couldn't demolish: compassion and love.

"I'm amazed at the destruction," said Doug Brewer, Southgate's pastor. "I'm amazed at the compassion ... the provision of God."

That attitude also pervaded the evening service at First Baptist Church.

PHOTOS: Oklahoma tornado

Led by a massive choir, its members dressed in different-colored robes, the crowd sang what sounded like an anthem for the Oklahoma standard:

We will rise, sure as sun in Oklahoma skies.

We will rise though the road be rough and long.

We will rise, live or die, shoulder to shoulder, side by side.

We will rise. We will rise. Yes, we will rise.

Times staff writers Rick Rojas in Los Angeles and Neela Banerjee in Washington contributed to this report.

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