One week after tornado, a church carries on

By Amy Forbus Editor VILONIA, Ark.—”Welcome to Vilonia United Methodist Church,” said the Rev. Nathan Kilbourne. It was a typical greeting for the beginning of worship, but on May 4, it brought laughter from congregants and pastor alike because Kilbourne was standing at the front of the sanctuary belonging to Center Point Free Will Baptist Church. “In all reality, this is the church sitting right here before me,” he said as the laughs subsided, gesturing to the people gathered there, which included members of United Methodist Disaster Response teams from Arkansas and Louisiana. It was the first Sunday after the April 27 tornado, and Vilonia UMC’s campus had sustained severe damage, leaving them without their own space to meet. So at 8:30 a.m., they packed out the borrowed sanctuary to carry on with their traditional worship service. There were some changes: They passed a notebook around the room to record prayer requests instead of speaking them aloud—naming all those in need of prayer following the tornado would have undoubtedly taken up most of the time available in the borrowed sanctuary. Another change: Kilbourne did not lead the service alone. Bishop Gary Mueller offered an opening prayer and a word of hope to the congregation. “I think that it is not when times are good that we discover our faith, but when times are tough,” Mueller said. “In the midst of the struggles and the pain and brokenness and the grieving that’s going on, you are being the church, just the way the church needs to.” He commended the church for carrying through with honoring their graduating high school and college seniors as scheduled that Sunday, and told them of gifts given and prayers lifted for them by fellow United Methodists around the nation and world. “As I looked Tuesday when I was walking around with Nathan, I began to realize that our God is indeed a resurrection God, and that out of the rubble will come God’s greatest dreams for you,” he said, predicting that in a year or two they will be the church they’ve dreamed of being, and then some. As a gift from Arkansas United Methodists through the Conference Disaster Relief Fund, he then presented Vilonia UMC with a check for $25,000 to help rebuild their facility—a gift met with a collective gasp and applause from the congregation, as well as a few tears. Kilbourne preached on the story of the walk to Emmaus, as found in Luke 24, applying the disciples’ question, “Were not our hearts burning within us?” to experiences in the days following the tornado. The disciples’ hearts burned within them because they knew Christ was there, even though they couldn’t quite see him through all their pain and grief. He spoke of witnessing the people of Vilonia UMC looking out for each other, checking on one another within minutes after the storm passed. “My heart burns within me because I’ve seen in our community the Risen One, and the Crucified One,” Kilbourne said. He shared with the graduating seniors his prayer for them, “that when you don’t think you see the Lord, when you just can’t quite recognize him, you feel your heart begin to burn within you and you will know it is the Risen One, that the Risen One is with you.” As he and Bishop Mueller began the celebration of Holy Communion, Kilbourne donned his storm-stained Communion stole, which he had found outside after the tornado. “I think it speaks to who we are as a people,” he said. “Battered, worn, in need of the grace of God.” In the benediction, Bishop Mueller reminded the congregation of the words of Paul, that nothing would separate them from the love of God in Jesus Christ. “Go and live it, and do it with joy and hope and resolve,” he said as he sent them forth. The people of Vilonia UMC and guests met together once more that day for some fellowship and Sabbath time at the high school cafeteria, featuring a meal donated and served by Mike’s Place restaurant of Conway.