Leaders of the Real Life Christian Church still found a reason to smile on Saturday despite half their $3 million building blown apart by a tornado, and the other half still standing but needing to be torn down, .
As church elders and staff gathered outside to talk, they laughed when someone noted a fire pit built nearby remained unscathed.
We’re a resilient bunch, said Larry King, head of the Board of Elders.
“Our faith is strong. It’s a church. We lean on each other,” King said. “We always say the structure, the brick and mortar, that’s not the church. The people are the church. We’ll bond together and we’ll be stronger for it.”
Although some church members were in the building early Friday, no one was there when the storm hit shortly after 6 p.m.
It was a hard reality to face, King and others acknowledged Saturday, to look at the rubble of their eight-year-old building along Centerville Turnpike.
They’ll provide a service at 10 this morning on Facebook Live in lieu of a congregational gathering, but they don’t know where they’ll celebrate Easter in two weeks.
It was just last fall that work was completed on Real Life’s second-story addition that expanded space for students and young children.
“We just had the sign put in last month,” said King, pointing to the damaged entry sign that now is wrapped in steel siding blown off the church.
What had been the main sanctuary – a two-story-tall room – is now a concrete slab where the walls and furnishings were swept into a gigantic pile of rubble.
“We had about 450 seats, a stage, lighting, sound booth. That’s all gone,” said executive director Brett Coates as he stared at the space. Somewhere mixed in with broken building materials were guitars, drums, amplifiers and a large projection screen, he said.
He spotted the church’s baptismal vessel, a bathtub-size tank, sitting in the pile not far from an overturned speaker.
Much of what had been inside the worship area had been pushed into the church’s lobby. With power cut off, church members and others with flashlights roamed the interior trying to see what could be salvaged.
Coates said there is water and ceiling damage throughout the building with “holes in the walls from projectile steel beams coming through.”
“There are some walls inside that are leaning over in the new construction areas,” he said.
Glen Trematore, whose Virginia Beach firm Church Development Services built the upstairs addition, said saving what remains of the building is impossible because the storm twisted many of its supporting steel beams .
“The weight that was being supported by the part of the building that was destroyed has been shifted to the side still standing,” Trematore said.
The tornado ripped strips of sheet metal off the church’s outer walls, wrapping them around small trees near Centerville Turnpike like paper streamers.
Centerville Turnpike near the church was closed for hours Saturday as Virginia Dominion Power crews worked to reinstall utility poles and power lines that were knocked down during the storm.
The twister ripped through homes in the Kemp Bridge subdivision a mile west of the church before striking Real Life, but left relatively unscathed was the nearby Resurrection Evangelical Lutheran Church and a home just south of Real Life.
Shingles and insulation were torn off sections of the Lutheran church’s roof, but the building was OK, said Pastor Jon Fischer.
He expects services today would go one as scheduled even if power is not restored.
Real Life’s next-door neighbor, Peggy Osmundson, who attended services at the church, said her only losses were some missing fence, a little siding and a flagpole.
“We’re blessed – that’s what I’m thinking,” she said as she walked to the church.
Coates and King said many churches along Centerville Turnpike and others have offered the temporary use of their spaces.
Nothing is settled beyond attempting to work out how to handle the next few Sundays.
It’s possible the church may have to return to its early days when the congregation met in rented spaces in schools before completing its building in 2009.
“It’s been disheartening, but I know our people. We’ve been through some trying times,” said Coates, who has been director for five years. “People of Real Life Christian Church don’t quit.”