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Congregation unshaken in wake of tempest

The severe weather that roared through the area on Monday may have weakened the structure of 40-year-old Missouri Avenue Baptist Church, but not the faith of its 50 members.

"The community has really reached out to us," said Donald Vestal, the church's pastor.

As soon as word got out that the storm had peeled off half of the church's roof, neighboring churches began calling and offering their support.

"I can't even count the number," said Roger White, a deacon at the church at 1178 Belleair Road and a member since 1960.

A woman in Miami even called after she heard about the church on the news. She said her church had been demolished by a tornado, and she just wanted to give some moral support.

Some local churches offered more than kind words _ they offered administrative assistance and supplies. They even offered the use of their sanctuaries.

"To see that kind of support . . . that's what it's all about," White said.

For now, the congregation's 50 members have decided to worship in the back of the church in a small chapel that is used as a Sunday school classroom.

"We'll kind of squeeze in and bear it," Vestal said. "But it will make us more appreciative of what we have."

On Tuesday, carpet was laid on the chapel's bare floor and four pews were moved into the room. On Wednesday, about 25 members attended a service.

They prayed about their church and gave thanks that no one was hurt.

The church was empty when the storm blew through the area at about 8:40 a.m. Monday. White arrived about 9 a.m.

"It looked like the wind actually picked up the porch and dropped it back down," he said.

The storm tore off the east side of the roof and slammed it down in the Checker's parking lot across Missouri Avenue.

Late Monday afternoon, workers put a huge tarp over the hole in the roof. But by then water had seeped through the ceiling panels, soaking the padding on 14 pews and soiling the burgundy carpet.

On Tuesday, the pews were loaded into a truck and taken to a warehouse to be repaired. New padding was put on the pews just six months ago.

Throughout the week, workers pulled wet insulation out of the attic, ripped panels off the ceiling and yanked carpet off the floor.

Deacon Al Summerford, another longtime member of the church, said the storm caused structural damage to the front of the building. An engineer will determine the extent of the damage, he said. Most of the ceiling will need to be replaced.

"It overwhelms you a bit," Summerford said. "No one was injured though. We can recover from all of this."

Fortunately, the church has insurance. Preliminary repair estimates run from $80,000 to $120,000, Vestal said. The work may take four to six months, he said.

Although the church parsonage also was in the path of the storm, the house at 1387 Bellevue Blvd. received minor damage compared with the church.

Though the church was severely damaged in the storm, Vestal says there is a silver lining.

"A lot of good blessings are going to come out of this," he said. "The Lord is doing a lot within the hearts of our people."