BOTKINBURG — On the morning after an EF2-rated tornado tore through his church last April, reducing much of the structure to rubble, Ester Bass stood by the devastation and vowed to build back.
Less than a year later, the 64-year-old Bass is proving to be a man of his word.
The Botkinburg Foursquare Church, where Bass has served as pastor for about 17 years, will hold a grand opening of its new facility April 6, just four days short of the anniversary of the 2013 tornado that destroyed its previous incarnation.
Bass isn't quite sure yet what words he'll deliver to the congregation that Sunday morning. But he expects it will incorporate themes he's experienced over the past year about finding the strength to overcome a terrible loss.
"It's all by the grace of God that we're here and where we're at now," Bass said. "If he can do that with how he's worked, then he can do anything in our lives. That's the focus."
The tornado touched down in the small Van Buren County town north of Clinton the afternoon of April 10, 2013, destroying much of the church, taking the roof off an adjacent home, obliterating a nearby residence and damaging about 30 other structures. Four injuries were reported, but none was life-threatening.
That was a Wednesday and the church still held service the following Sunday. A large tent was set up on the grounds of the damaged building, which was only 10 years old, and a crowd of 300 people came out to hear Bass' sermon. The congregation usually draws about 100.
"That was just a way of showing them we're here to stay," Bass recalled in a recent interview. "We're going to come through this."
It took a little while to get the wheels in motion, but a few weeks later, demolition and removal of the damaged church began. Before long, the structure was reduced to the concrete slab it had been built upon and rebuilding could commence.
The congregation, meanwhile, didn't miss a Sunday. First, they moved to a gymnasium at a nearby church, but it didn't have air conditioning. Then, they moved to a church in nearby Dennard. The space was small, but it was enough for Bass to keep his congregation going in a tumultuous time.
Rebuilding the old structure, with a few updates including a larger fellowship area and a longer sanctuary, was covered by insurance. Bass said he was pleasantly surprised when the policy paid above-and-beyond the value of the old church to cover the rebuild, which turned out to be about $100,000 more.
The damage wasn't limited to the building, however. The contents — including books, pews, tables, a grand piano donated when the church first opened and virtually everything else inside — were also lost. But, Bass said, those things are being replaced thanks in large part to the kindness of friends and strangers alike.
He estimated about two dozen churches in the Van Buren County area showed up during the rebuild, offering money or their time or both.
And the church's destruction made national news, including a segment that appeared on CNN. The result was a "tremendous outpouring" of support from people across the country. One person paid for an organ. Another donated a new grand piano. Still others sent songbooks and Bibles.
Sometimes, donations would come from motorists who just happened to see the destruction while passing the property on U.S. 65.
"These were people who didn't even know us from anybody and they would stop with tears in their eyes and give us a check for 200 or 300 or even 500 dollars," Bass recalled. "Just out of the goodness of their heart. People were just so good. Tragedy like that just brings out the best in the people."
There were still signs of the tornado's destruction on a recent afternoon even as workers measured gutters and sanded wood in the shadow of the new steeple. The old piano sits behind the church, its legs snapped off and its frame shattered. And debris is still tangled in the broken limbs of trees lining the valley behind the property.
Bass said the church will turn its attention to cleaning that up at some point. But for now, it's a reminder of all they've been through.
"When you look up and see the debris in the trees and then you look and see the new building it makes you realize life isn't over because of a tragedy," he said. "If we trust and we obey, we'll always come back better."