Locals' faith still strong one year after the storm

BAY COUNTY, Fla. (WJHG) - Despite the hurt and heartbreak our area felt after Hurricane Michael, there is hope.

Local church buildings may have been damaged, but the people continued to worship. (WJHG/WECP)

There isn't one sector of local life Hurricane Michael hasn't affected. That includes where we often feel the most peace. Church.

Even though the storm ripped off roofs and brought down walls locals still found a way to gather and praise the God who gives and takes away. Now a year later some are just now getting back into those houses of worship. For others, it will be a while. But the praises still go on.

Where was God in all this? Why would he allow this to happen? That's a question many have asked in the year since Hurricane Michael changed our way of life and destroyed our places of worship.

That first Sunday after the storm the faithful still found a way to gather even if it was in the parking lot of their demolished churches.

"So, I was a little overwhelmed 'cause I'm like, 'What am I gonna tell these folks? What hope am I gonna give them?'" said Hiland Park Baptist Church Senior Pastor Dr. Steven Kyle.

Overwhelmed is the right term as congregation after congregation found their faith being tested.

"The church was pretty devastated. It had four and a half feet of water in it," said Mexico Beach Methodist Pastor Jerry Arhelger.

"The bell tower had fallen in this sanctuary," said Marvin Miller, music minister of Panama City First Methodist Church. "It had crushed some of our stained glass windows, we lost our pipe organ, lost our piano, lost pews. But the best thing about this was we didn't lose our church family."

In fact, the church family began to work together tearing down denominational barriers just like Hurricane Michael brought down church walls.

"The churches are learning how to work together so I think God had a plan in the storm to bring the churches together," said Family of God Baptist Church Senior Minister Dwight Woods.

"I preach and I teach that if you want to know what's on the inside of somebody just squeeze their tube. I would have to say if a tube's ever been squeezed before, it was ours during Hurricane Michael," said Dr. Kyle. "But the brotherhood the sisterhood it really rose to the top."

"It's had its challenges but it's had its blessings as well," said Senior Pastor of St. Andrew Methodist Church John Blount.

"We started just having one service here instead of three," said Miller. "And it actually forced people to integrate and know each other like we've never known each other before."

Bay County's church community has learned to live by faith and not by sight. Because what is visible, even a year later, can be tough to take in.

"As you can see the sanctuary we're still not in it but we're still worshiping the Lord of Lords and the King of Kings," said Miller.

"It's been a slow work but, praise the Lord, we're getting closer than we were," said Arhelger.

While many churches are in the middle of being repaired, others are completely destroyed. The common theme we've heard in every message is we realize the church is not walls, it's not church pews, it's not even the altar. It's people.

"It was not my concern with the building because buildings will be built and buildings will fall. But we are the body and we're brothers and sisters in the Lord Jesus Christ," said Arhelger.

"We have definitely learned that the church is not a building. It's got to be outside the wall to be effective in the community. So I feel like God has taken the roof off the church requiring the church to reach out beyond itself," said Woods.

"As beautiful as this sanctuary was, and it will be even more beautiful in the future, it's still not about the building and the concrete and the windows. It's about loving others," said Miller.

"It's not the building but at the same time, there's not gonna be a single square inch of our future building that we're not gonna be extremely grateful for," said Blount.

Moving forward hasn't been easy but people of faith are standing on God's promises.

"We will never be the same because of what we went through but praise God we will be better," said Arhelger.

"The Bible says those who wait upon the Lord shall renew their strength. They shall mount up on wings as eagles. So that's where we are," said Woods.

But as they wait they're forgetting the past and reaching for what lies ahead.

"I think literally the best days are ahead," said Dr. Kyle.

"You know there's a lot of hope for our community right now," said Blount. "I'm excited about that"

"We're not downtrodden," said Woods. "But we have hope in him because we know that he's a God who is always preparing a place and has a plan for us."

While it could be years before steeples and pews are put back in their permanent places locals will continue to lift their voices and their hands to the God who restores.

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