“Isaiah 40:8,” freshman Becca Bryant answers immediately when asked what she learned from the F-4 tornado that destroyed 17 buildings and almost 80 percent of student housing at her college on Feb. 5. “God is in control, and He even takes care of small details. Oh, and stuff? It’s just stuff.”
Becca loves her new college life at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee. It is a long way from her home in Arlington, Texas, but she insists, “Union is like a family… especially after the storm. It’s made us stronger because God reminded us where our strength comes from.”
Becca and her friends were laughing, passing around magazines, and brainstorming about the upcoming variety show. She had actually been studying in her dorm room when her roommate Katy began crying because they were under a tornado warning.
Between Katy’s sniffles and the R.A. popping in the door every few minutes to tell them to go downstairs, Becca finally gave up her attempt of being studious and convinced Katy to go with her to Tori’s dorm room across campus. Even though they were instructed not to leave the building, Becca knew that Tori, her big sister in their sorority, would help keep Katy calm.
Once they were safe in Tori’s dorm room to wait out the storm, an R.A. stuck her head in the door. “Hey, can all of y’all fit in that bathroom?”
Becca waved her off. “Oh yeah, we love each other. No problem!”
Not waiting for another explanation, the R.A. hurried out, and the girls laughed, imagining all 14 of them cramming into that little bathroom. They went back to devising choreography and costumes.
Suddenly, Becca’s ears popped, and the pressure dropped. “Wow, did you guys…” Becca’s voice trailed off.
“Get in the bathroom now!” a voice cried out as they ran for the door.
Becca was one of the first ones in, so she jumped to the back of the shower. The last girl held the door shut, and Becca saw her struggling against the wind. She felt the exterior of the walls ripping off the building. She heard crash after crash as furniture splintered across the room, pictures flew off the walls, and glass shattered.
About 20 seconds passed, and silence followed. Several of her friends began crying, but Becca stood motionless. “I don’t know what I felt, but I wasn’t scared. I just started to sing ‘How Great is Our God,’ and everyone else joined in.”
Becca smiles as she recalls thanking God that they were okay and praying for everyone else on campus. “We didn’t know what it would look like outside or how many people were hurt. But we still knew that He was in control.”
Their prayer was interrupted by shouts for everyone to come out if they could. Slowly, one girl opened the door, and it was hard to believe it was the same room they were in just fifteen minutes earlier. Most of the furniture was upside down, and some of it wasn’t even there anymore. The walls were so thin, the girls could feel a slight draft as if they were outside. The carpet appeared shiny, which Becca soon discovered was the reflection of tiny pieces of glass clinging to the thread.
“My mom used to tell me that my bedroom looked like a tornado hit it,” Becca said. “But there’s no way I could have done anything like what we saw if I tried.”
Stepping over the shimmering patches of carpet without shoes, Becca made it to the hallway with her friends. An upperclassmen told them to go to another building on campus. Becca started for the door, but a girl she didn’t know stopped her. “You can’t go out there without shoes. Power lines are down all over campus. Wait here.” She returned a few minutes later with a pair of shoes. “I still have them,” Becca says. “They’ll always be my ‘tornado shoes.’”
Becca will never forget the images she saw over the next few hours. “My dorm was the worst hit. If we had stayed over there, I could have been one of the 51 students who were injured. There’s something about seeing the inside of your dorm room when you’re standing outside. . . especially when it’s eye-level, and it used to be on the second floor.”
She jumped over downed electric lines and puddles of water. She saw her friend’s Jeep turned upside down in a different lot than where it was parked. As she looked around at the bent trees on campus, her mind kept wandering to Isaiah 40:8: “The grass withers, the flowers fade, but the Word of our God remains forever.”
The students gathered in one of the buildings that was not badly damaged. “Things were still crazy because another storm was coming. We didn’t know how soon or how strong, but we definitely knew how bad it could be,” she remembers. “But it was also comforting to see that everyone was alive and that our professors and staff came back to campus to help.”
Because of the number of volunteers and preparedness of the staff just a few hours after the storm hit, every Union student was not only accounted for, but also alive. Only nine of the injured students stayed in the hospital overnight, and none of the injuries were life threatening.
When reunited with friends, Becca heard her name called. “Someone is here to get you,” the volunteer said, motioning her towards a couple. “Hi,” the woman said. “My name is Bonnie Pipkin. I’m Drew Herndon’s aunt. I’m here to take you, and however many of your friends can fit in my car, to my house.”
As she heard her associate youth pastor’s name from her home church, Fielder Road Baptist Church, Becca was overwhelmed by God’s grace. “I was blown away that He would provide a connection for me ten hours away from home.”
Becca and three of her friends went back to Bonnie’s home to spend the night and waited on their families to arrive in Jackson. In addition to staff and faculty members providing refuge for students, community volunteers without ties to Union responded to the news reports of the damaged dorms so students could have a place to rest and recover.
Many Southern Baptist churches and organizations also provided aid. Some churches brought buses to campus the night of the tornado to take students to homes of their members. Checks, cash, gift cards, and volunteers arrived with each day that passed.
David Dockery, Union University president, provided Internet updates daily for students, parents, and volunteers. Dockery insisted on focusing on God’s providential care of student lives and the overwhelming amount of volunteers – more volunteers they they could use.
“In times like this,” Dockery said, “It’s good to be part of a larger family.”
As the recovery phase began, students received phone calls to let them know if any of their belongings were salvageable. “I got an initial call telling me that they weren’t able to recover anything from my dorm room.” Becca reminisces.
Becca lost everything: her clothes, computer, books, and even her car. But those were not the hard losses. “It’s the things like the collage my mom made me when I graduated high school and cards from friends and family that I will never get back. That’s hard. But I’ve gained more than I lost.”
Before leaving her dorm room, Becca saw her birthstone ring on her dresser and put it on. “I don’t usually wear it because it’s a special gift from my Aunt Sandy. Her son, Drew, had the same birthstone as me, but he died before I was born. The fact that I put it on before I left my dorm room just shows God is in the details of His children.”
While the campus itself crumbled, the Jackson community, especially students, faculty, and staff, remained intact. “I know people think college students are really selfish,” Becca said. “But we didn’t want anything material. People tried giving me gift cards, but I knew my parents could help me. We sent them to find the missionary kids and international students. They were the ones who needed help first because it would take their parents longer to get money to them.”
Dockery encouraged volunteers to remember the words of St. Francis of Assisi: "Start by doing what is necessary, then what is possible, and suddenly you are doing the impossible.” While the campus may have crumbled, the Jackson community, especially students, faculty, and staff, remained intact.
“I know people think college students are really selfish. I’m not saying that we weren’t sad, but the students really worked as a team. When most students were handed gift cards, they found an international student or a missionary kid to give it to. They were the ones who needed help first because it took longer for their parents to get money to them,” Becca says, beaming with joy.
As Becca and her friends did the necessary and the possible, God began doing the impossible.
After returning home to Texas until classes resumed, she received a phone call. “We found something of yours in the rubble,” the voice on the other line said. “You can pick it up at the student center when you return to campus.”
Two weeks later, Becca opened the bag with her name on it. She couldn’t believe what was inside. Slightly water-damaged - but completely readable and in one piece - her Bible.
“Just like the verse that was going through my mind the night of the storm,” Becca says. “His Word remains forever.”
The same tornado that destroyed 17 buildings, injured 51 students, cancelled class for two weeks, totaled 1,000 vehicles, and did roughly $40 million in damage was no match for the word of God. What a beautiful picture of what we as Christians really own. Contrary to what we may think, we are not in control of what will happen in our lives or to our possessions.
“I just can’t believe how quickly it happened. I was so frustrated because I wanted to keep studying in the quietness of my dorm room. But if I had stayed, my parents would have been making funeral arrangements instead of finding me a new place to live,” Becca reflects.
James wrote, “Now listen, you who say, ‘Today or tomorrow we will go to this or that city, spend a year there, carry on business and make money.’ Why, you do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes. Instead, you ought to say, ‘If it is the Lord's will, we will live and do this or that’” (James 4:13-15).
Becca is ashamed that it took a tornado to make her turn the words she read in her Bible into reality. “Now I know how quickly things can be taken away and what really matters. I mean, some people lost their Bibles. I know that. But I think I got mine back so God could teach me a lesson.”
Becca continues, “God has taught me that if I know His Word and live my life as an example to others, those are things that no tornado or anything else can take away from me. Everything else that I used to think mattered can be gone in a second.”
You don’t have to survive a tornado to discover He is God and you are not. If you are ready to turn everything in your life over to Him, read Psalm 39 out loud as a prayer to God. Pay close attention to verses 4-8. (Be sure to follow James 1:22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”)