On March 2, 2020, the world stood on the precipice of a pandemic. People throughout the United States were trying to figure out how they might handle the impending COVID-19 crisis. This included the leadership and congregation of St. John Lutheran in Nashville, Tenn.

That night and into the next morning, seven tornadoes tore through central Tennessee, including one that touched down for 60 miles in and around Nashville.

“I got a call saying our church was destroyed,” said Jim Graham, a member of St. John. “My wife and I went over there, and we got close enough to see the damage. It was an unbelievable moment. The sanctuary was gone.”

The twister not only shattered the sanctuary but damaged multiple church buildings. Three roofs would have to be replaced. The fellowship hall needed extensive repair work. Debris, phone lines and power lines were strewn across the church’s 5-acre property.

“It was the perfect storm,” said Rick Roberts, pastor of St. John for the last 19 years. “It was surreal to see how the sanctuary took a direct hit. But, as terrible as it was, we started seeing the blessings right away.”

As news of the church damage spread, parishioners began showing up and almost immediately talked about how to rebuild. Other area Lutheran congregations brought food and supplies. A cleanup day attracted so many community volunteers that police officers had to turn them away, Graham said. Volunteer groups from Gulf Coast congregations that St. John had helped during hurricane relief efforts came to Nashville to lend a hand.

“People showed up from everywhere,” Graham said, “and as the cleanup got underway, one of the first things that went through the minds of so many members was, ‘How do we rebuild this thing?’ We didn’t sit around feeling sorry for ourselves. We had a job to do.”

That job extended past rebuilding the brick-and-mortar church. At the time of the tornado, St. John was heavily involved in multiple ministries that supported the community. Running feeding and homelessness ministries and supporting a nearby school were just some of the efforts the congregation had been undertaking.

A devastating tornado wouldn’t stop these outreach programs—even without a physical church to house them. “The gospel truth is the church is not about the building,” Roberts said. “It’s not about us. It’s about what God does through us.”

“It was an unbelievable moment. The sanctuary was gone.”

“A community church”

Prior to the storm, St. John had designated a spot in the sanctuary for food donations. The congregation has a long-standing relationship with the Second Harvest Food Bank of Middle Tennessee. Before 2020, Roberts said, the highest number of items donated in a single year was about 3,100. This year, monthly food drop-offs in the church parking lot have collected 3,800 items in the first four months alone.

St. John’s outreach program supporting Two Rivers Middle School also stayed strong after the storm. Parishioners provide food for students to take home on weekends and during extended school breaks, and another donation drive collected school supplies and clothing.

The church aims for a similar goal with its “Room in the Inn” ministry: several times a month the congregation welcomes unhoused men, women and children with shelter, food and fellowship. The ministry hasn’t been able to provide shelter since the storm hit, but steady donations continue to serve St. John’s neighbors in other ways.

“We take pride in being a community church,” Graham said. “This outreach is what our church is all about. There is a saying [from] Scripture, ‘all means all,’ and that means helping all people, not just some. We feel blessed to keep on [with] these ministries.”

Roberts is proud of “what we’re doing, but we still have to strive to show people who we are and whose we are. Hopefully, that will be our continued focus.”

Reconstruction work is underway on all St. John’s damaged buildings, with the exception of the sanctuary, which will be a multimillion-dollar construction project from the ground up. The congregation expects its fellowship hall to be reconstructed in 2021 and will use it for worship services until the sanctuary is completed.

Despite the dual hardships of tornado damage and the pandemic, Roberts feels his faith has strengthened as people in Nashville and across the country continue to support the church and its ministries.

“It enhances my sense of calling,” he said. “Obviously, we would have rather not gone through this. But I feel we’ve been truly blessed through this whole process.”

Jay Saunders
Jay Saunders has more than 20 years' experience writing for television, newspapers and magazines. He is a member of Fox Point Lutheran Church in Fox Point, Wis.

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