Easter is Coming

Back in March 1994, a young woman named Kelly Clem served as pastor of Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama. The Sunday before Easter, on Palm Sunday, the congregation packed the church. Kelly placed her two-year-old daughter Sarah in the church nursery. Kelly’s four-year-old daughter, Hannah, dressed in a little blue-and-white choir robe, sat on the front pew with the children’s choir. As the service got underway, the congregation heard wind blowing outside. The sky turned black. Then the lightning began, followed by hail. Suddenly a burst of wind hit the building. The stained-glass window shattered, and shards of glass shot across the sanctuary. Somebody shouted, “Tornado!” Pieces of ceiling started to fall. A horrible sound followed as the roof of the church ripped off, and the building crashed around them.

Reverend Kelly ran to check on her children. But a brick hit her on the head, and she fell hard on her shoulder. When she finally got up, she looked around at the devastation. Someone told her that her two-year-old daughter, Sarah, was OK—that the nursery was still intact. Then Kelly looked at where her four-year-old daughter, Hannah, had been sitting. The area was covered by a pile of bricks. Underneath that pile of bricks she could see little blue-and-white choir robes. Members of the church pulled Hannah and the other children out of the bricks, but Hannah did not make it. Nineteen people died that day, and eighty-six others were injured. The days that followed were brutal. Kelly performed one funeral after another, including a funeral for her own daughter. Toward the end of that devastating week, Kelly began to get phone calls from members of the congregation. They asked the strangest question. “Reverend Clem,” they asked, “Are we having Easter this year?”

Kelly knew they weren’t just asking about Sunday’s services. She knew they were saying, “Reverend Clem, we desperately need Easter.” And after officiating at multiple funerals, including the funeral of her four-year-old daughter, Kelly Clem knew she needed Easter too. So Kelly and her congregation planned an Easter sunrise service. The church had been destroyed, so they had the service out on the lawn, in the midst of all of the devastation of the tornado. Early on Easter morning, more than two hundred people gathered on the front yard of the church. There, in that dismal setting of destruction and death, Reverend Kelly Clem, with a bandage on her head and her shoulder in a brace, made her way to the makeshift pulpit. She looked into the faces of people whose dreams and lives had been shattered. Then she read the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 8, “For I am convinced that neither death nor life . . . nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (vv. 38–39). And with those words the Goshen United Methodist Church of Piedmont, Alabama, began their Easter service. They sang “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today.” They prayed. They read the Easter story about how God brings life even out of death.

Many years have passed since that sunrise Easter worship service at the Goshen church. But that Easter hope—hope that God brings life even out of destruction and death—gave the people of Goshen United Methodist Church in Piedmont, Alabama, the strength to rebuild their church and the strength to rebuild their lives. And that Easter resurrection hope gave Reverend Kelly Clem and her family the strength to rebuild their lives. The day after the tornado a reporter asked Reverend Clem if the disaster had shattered her faith.

She replied: “It has not shattered my faith. I’m holding on to my faith. It’s holding me. All of the people of Goshen are holding on to each other, along with the hope they will be able to rebuild.” Then Kelly, physically injured and full of grief over the death of her daughter, said to the reporter, “Easter is coming.”

And Easter came, both for Kelly and for her church. With God’s help the good people of Goshen UMC did rebuild their church and their lives. And so did Kelly Clem and her family. Since the tornado, Kelly and her husband Dale have continued to live life with faith and hope. And they have continued to serve God and God’s church. Several years after the tornado, Kelly and Dale had another child, a little girl named Laurel. After serving as United Methodist missionaries in Lithuania, Kelly and her husband returned to Alabama and are currently living full lives and serving churches in Huntsville. Such is the power of Easter resurrection hope. Hope for life and hope for death.