Our faith still stands

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Balko church rebuilds following tornado

by Myra Holmes

A small tornado—some say it was only a straight-line wind—tore through Balko, Okla., in the dark early morning hours Sunday, June 13. Daylight revealed damage to trees, roofs and outbuildings throughout town. Hardest hit was the church building owned by Crossroads Bible Fellowship, a Mennonite Brethren congregation of about 70.

The roof and west wall were destroyed. Debris and water created havoc throughout what was left of the church building. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Amid the rubble lay the church’s large cross. One of the first things church members did was lift that cross back to a prominent standing position and surround it with the Christian and U.S. flags. The display became symbolic of the congregation‘s focus as they rebuild: “It was some sort of a step to start the rebuilding process and say, ‘Look, our faith still stands,’” says pastor James Epp.

The building’s basic structure is intact and sound, so the congregation will rebuild. Initial estimates put the cost of rebuilding at around $225,000, although Epp suspects it will be more.

Along the way they’ll do some refurbishing of the 1970s-era interior. “We’ve been wanting to change the carpet color,” Epp jokes. “This is just a drastic way to go about it.” They also hope to improve the building’s energy efficiency.

The congregation had recently approved the purchase of a new, pre-fab activity building, which is on the property and ready for “phase one” construction to make it useable. That building was left untouched by the tornado.

They have re-roofed the sanctuary and installed a temporary wall so the building is secure. For the time being, the congregation will continue to meet in the fellowship hall of the damaged church building, while making construction of the activity building a priority. “Completing the activity building will allow us time to pray and discern and then rebuild the sanctuary,” says Epp.

More important than the condition of the building, the congregation’s faith remains intact. Even the morning of the storm, their cross display, a sign that read, “I will praise you in the storm,” and an impromptu worship service attracted attention of passersby and prompted many conversations. Epp talks about fruitful conversations he had with storm chasers and television crews, for example.

“It’s provided an opportunity to talk about God’s grace and goodness and how he was watching over us as a congregation,” Epp says.
Epp says Crossroads Bible Fellowship was in the midst of a spiritual growth spurt before the storm, with new passion for the lost and new willingness to step out of comfort zones in order to spread the gospel. He hopes that this “faith-stretcher” will be another catalyst for growth. He notes that the church is not a building but a people.

“God’s going to keep growing that aspect of it, even if the walls have fallen in,” says Epp.

The Balko church was also hit by a tornado 27 years ago to the day, June 13, 1983. While Epp doesn’t attach any particular significance to that coincidence, he is encouraging the congregation to view this “discipline” as an opportunity for self-examination and repentance. God disciplines those he loves,” Epp says, “so if this was God’s discipline we are rejoicing in his love for us.”

One challenge the congregation will face as they rebuild is to stay focused and unified. Human tendency is to bicker about things like carpet color, but Epp says God has placed Crossroads Bible Fellowship strategically in Balko to reach their community for Christ, and it’s important that they not lose that vision. He asks the larger MB family to pray “that we would stay focused on who we are and what we’ve been called to be as a church.”

One additional area of specific need Epp anticipates as they rebuild, especially as the congregation designs a more current sanctuary, is expertise in architecture, design and layout. To help in these areas, contact Epp at jajepp@ptsi.net

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