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Recovery continues for Central Arkansas churches hit by March 31 tornado

Recovery continues for Central Arkansas churches hit by March 31 tornado by Frank E. Lockwood | June 10, 2023 at 7:36 a.m.
Jacksonville First Assembly of God after it was hit by the March 31, 2023 tornado. Photo taken on June 1, 2023.

Ten weeks after a powerful tornado slashed its way across Central Arkansas, churches in its pathway still face a lengthy recovery.

The March 31 storm, with peak winds of 165 mph, wreaked havoc on at least eight houses of worship, heavily damaging four and destroying the others.

Parkway Place Baptist Church in west Little Rock, the first to be struck, sustained damages of more than $1 million, its pastor, Matt Overall, said.

Since then, it has been a work zone.

"We had a whole new roof put on, we've had $25,000 worth of landscaping that we had to redo. It's been quite the process," he said.

Beginning Sunday, the congregation will be meeting in its children's wing while the sanctuary undergoes repairs.

Roughly 150 people worship at Parkway Place each Sunday.

"We're hoping this process will be just a couple of months, but the contractor still hasn't even given us a timeline," he said. "They're still identifying things that have to be addressed."

The tornado, which hit Overall's church at 2:21 p.m., crossed Cantrell Road, then headed toward Nappa Valley Drive, arriving at Agape Church at 2:23 p.m.

The congregation and its 12.5 acre campus were hit hard, with 60% of the trees toppled and debris scattered about.

"It took us a quarter-million dollars just to clean up the mess," Agape's pastor, Scott Stewart, said.

The church's sanctuary, school and television studios were all damaged.

"We will probably have to replace the roofs of all three buildings," he said.

"It looks like it's going to be around between $2 [million] and $2.2 million for us to put it back together," he added.

For now, services are being held in the congregation's youth auditorium, which isn't big enough to hold the 700 or 750 people who sometimes show up.

So the church is now holding two services on Sunday mornings, instead of one.

While Agape Church can be restored, things weren't salvageable at The Apostolic Sanctuary of Little Rock on North Shackleford Road.


The congregation, which formed three years ago, was renting its space. The storm blew away the roof and caused the walls to collapse. Most of its equipment was destroyed.

Most of the $70,000 in damages won't be covered by insurance, the church's pastor, Tim White said.

For the time being, The Apostolic Sanctuary is meeting in a member's home.

Average attendance has fallen from 40 or 50 to 25 or 30, he estimated.

"We're rebuilding, starting all over, but it was devastating. It took everything," White said.

After crossing the Arkansas River and tearing through Burns Park, the tornado struck Amboy United Methodist Church about 2:31 p.m.

Since then, its congregants have gathered for worship at Gardner Memorial United Methodist Church in North Little Rock.


On a recent visit, blue tarps covered the sanctuary's roof, and its windows were boarded up.

Pastor Melvin Moss said he hopes to resume services in Amboy within the next 30 to 60 days.

"We've done most of the cleanup," he said.

While average attendance has dwindled to about 15, "we are hopeful that we can continue to be a viable partner in the growth and the future of the Amboy community," Moss said.

A mile to the northeast, Park View Baptist Church is a shell of its pre-tornado self.

The storm caused much of the building to collapse, its pastor, Brian Sheppard said.

"The insurance [company] has deemed it a total loss. We're we're not even sure we're going to build back there or if we're going to try to find a different property," he said.

It would take nearly $1 million "to build it back the way it was," Sheppard said.

The congregation, with average attendance of 45, may be better served with another design, he noted.


One of the priorities, for now, is getting the air conditioning units repaired at Amboy Baptist Church, where the congregation is currently gathering.

Thieves stripped out the copper wiring and summer heat is on the way.

Although Amboy is Southern Baptist, it has extended a helping hand to its Baptist Missionary Association of Arkansas brethren.

"They have taken us in with open arms to help any way that they can," Sheppard said.

While the experience has been painful, it has also brought folks together, he said.

"I think it has strengthened relationships within the church," he said. "We're going to come out of this better, simply because we went through it and we got through it together."

Another Missionary Baptist congregation, Cherrywood Baptist Church in Sherwood, is also picking up the pieces after surviving the storm.


"We're still waiting on insurance," its pastor, Glenn Alston said.

He estimated total damages of $100,000.

The congregation has dwindled over the years.

"I'd say 20 years ago, it was a full house," he said. These days, "there's a dozen of us. Everybody's old."

The members plan to continue meeting.

"It doesn't matter what the conditions of the building [are]. It's more about the conditions of people's hearts," he said. "That's the reason we're still going."

After passing over U.S. 67/167, the March 31 tornado leveled two Jacksonville congregations before dissipating.

New Commandment Church of God in Christ had recently paid off its mortgage. The storm tore the building to pieces.


Three weeks after the tornado, the congregation tore down what remained. Site work has already begun and Pastor Eddie Miller is eager to start rebuilding.

"My contractor's getting the city permits ready. ... Then they'll start to pour the foundation. Hopefully within the next couple of weeks, we'll be able to do that," he said.

If all goes according to plan, the new church will open in December, he said.

In the meantime, Miller is holding services at Victory Baptist Church, 350 feet up the road.

Despite seeing his sanctuary blown away, Miller said his faith has not been shaken.

"God has greater things for us. I know it. That's why I was never depressed, I was never down, I was never sad, because I truly felt that God had something spectacular on the horizon -- and he does," he said.

Jacksonville First Assembly of God, the other congregation leveled by the tornado, is meeting Sunday afternoons in the McArthur Church gymnasium.


Eventually, the congregation will return to Elm Street, he said.

"The plan is to rebuild on the same spot," its pastor, Brennan Ayers, said.

"We've been on that corner for right on 80 years. For us, I think it's a brand new site. It's just a reset button for us," he said.

Losing the building on Elm Street was painful, Ayers said.

"We've cried our tears. ... We've certainly grieved over the facility but the facility is not the church. The people are the church," he said.

Through it all, Romans 8:28 remains true, he said: "And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose."

Despite the recent devastation, pastors along the pathway expect better days ahead. "The hope of God doing something greater on the other side of [this] is very dominant in our life," said Stewart of Agape Church in Little Rock.

"He promises us that in good times and bad that He is faithful," Parkway Place's Overall said. "He's just as present in those valley moments as He is in those mountaintop moments."

Print Headline: Upon this rock


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