As Debbie Wise sipped coffee on her front porch high above Ringgold, Ga., on White Oak Mountain, voices began to fill the valley.
Below, Wise had a panoramic view of the flattened part of town that stretched for miles from Interstate 75 to downtown. Motels, fast-food restaurants and homes were demolished. But now the sound of singing echoed up the mountain and comforted her.
It was four days after the April 27 storms, and the voices rose from Sparks Street, where hundreds of people were packed into the Mount Peria Missionary Baptist Church parking lot. A semicircle of folding chairs surrounded a small group of men and women clustered at a music stand.
"I believe the storm will soon be over. ... I believe that I can make it through it," they sang.
Next door, the rubble of the church steeple lay in a pile, the fellowship hall flattened. A giant hole opened into the sanctuary where one of its stone walls had crumbled.
The 200-member church along Sparks Street was directly in the EF4 tornado's path. The storm's 250-mph winds had plowed through nearly every home in the predominantly black neighborhood before making a deadly hop over White Oak Mountain into Cherokee Valley.
This particular Sunday should have been the day when the congregation celebrated the church's 105th anniversary. Instead, members gathered in the parking lot and clung to one another. They wept, lifting shaky hands to the heavens, thankful no one in the church family had died.
Pastor Jim Ingram looked at his congregants and weighed what he was about to say.
"When you worked all your life for something and just overnight it's blown away, what do you say?" he later asked.
Churches like Mount Peria define a community.
It's the place where Jessie and Joy Thornton were married. It's where Theresa Moss' son was baptized. It's where she last told her grandfather goodbye, comforted family left behind. It's where General Lee Wymbs takes his grandchildren when they visit in the summer.
When members move away, they come back to visit. After they're gone, the church is still standing.
It's a reminder to them that prayer goes somewhere and communities heal.
But even a house of God can fall.
And those of faith respond: Shall we accept good from God and not trouble?
For more than a century, the church has served the part of Ringgold that residents refer to as a "little paradise." Half the people along this peaceful street are related, and almost everyone attends Mount Peria. Deacons run errands for the elderly and make bedside visits to the sick.
The church originally was called the Colored Baptist Church of Ringgold. It was founded in 1906 when four members made a $50 down payment on a 1-acre lot that cost $150.
Theresa Moss' grandparents were among the original members. A single mom who helps lead the church choir and sings soprano, Moss bought a house on Sparks Street in 1995 to be close to her family.
Her grandfather wielded a hammer to help expand the church's original one-room building. Her grandmother cooked for the bake sales to fund the piecemeal construction.
"You just saw their handiwork everywhere," Moss said.
Little by little, the congregation began to grow out of the one-room building. A new sanctuary was finished in 1985. The money came from extra tithing, a Women's Day fundraiser that pulled in $9,000, and cookout fundraisers such as barbecue dinners and bake sales.
Lifelong member Becky Smith remembers handing out hot, steaming plates of fried food at a cookout fundraiser when she was a teenager.
Members were excited by their work because it was for a greater cause. They sacrificed to see the church grow, pinching pennies to give beyond 10 percent of what they made. Two elderly women in the church hosted a fish fry to raise money to buy the pews. Past members helped buy cushions by donating cash in honor of lost loved ones.
As soon as the new sanctuary was ready, church members moved in. The outer walls hadn't even been bricked.
It took more than two years to raise the money to complete the building.
The church wasn't built overnight, Joy Thornton acknowledged. Even after the building was finished, members kept giving. A fellowship hall was added in 1991 and a youth center in 2007.
"It's been year after year after year that people have given of their time and their family and their efforts to build that church," she said.
But in 30 seconds, everything changed.
The twister struck with little warning.
About 8:30 p.m., the winds tore across Sparks Street.
The church's multipurpose building was first to be hit. The tornado took the roof and snapped off all four walls. Tables and chairs were sucked out. A nearby choir bus was tossed like a toy car.
The roof from the church's fellowship hall was seized and tossed aside. Several of the halls' walls caved in as the winds forced their way through to reach the sanctuary next door.
Shingles from the sanctuary were ripped up as the nails stood their ground. The steeple was flung from its perch. Glass in every window shattered and insulation rained onto the floor.
But the sanctuary stood strong.
The tornado forced its way out of the building, bursting through the sanctuary's outer right wall. The stone wall crumbled as the violence moved on in search of a new victim.
It was a Wednesday and ordinarily, church members would have been inside. But with the storm looming throughout the day, the deacons had canceled the night's usual Bible study a few hours before.
Members now clung to each other in their homes.
Across the street from the church, Wymbs, a deacon, held his wife as they hid in a bathtub. The house heaved off the ground. Their bodies were lifted with the floor, then hurled back down as if the house had breathed in and out.
Two houses down, Moss clutched her 20-year-old son as she watched her bedroom wall peel away. She saw the bedroom door ripped from its hinges, then stand upright as the wind held it in place.
Then everything was still.
"It didn't take but 30 seconds and it was all over," Wymbs said.
As neighbors crawled from what was left of their houses, wires sparked and popped. Trees blocked the roads. Houses lay in heaps.
Peering out his front door, Wymbs saw that his mother-in-law's duplex across the street had folded.
"We thought everybody was dead," he said.
He saw the church steeple tossed in the road, but he didn't have time to check the church. He had to find his family.
In Chattanooga, the phone rang at Ingram's home.
"I believe our church is going down," a deacon told him across the line.
After he hung up, the phone rang again.
"Pastor, the church is gone."
Ingram was quiet as he let the words settle in.
The search for survivors took half the night.
All the doors were blocked in Moss' house, but she and her son escaped through a hole in the living room wall. It was dark, but Moss followed the sound of a neighbor's voice to find the opening.
Wymbs found his wife's disabled sister trapped in her mother's living room across the street. The walls around her had collapsed, but she was still in her rocking chair, unhurt. His mother-in-law was unharmed, too.
It wasn't until the sun rose the next day that members saw the gaping hole in their church and the surrounding destruction.
They couldn't believe it. No one had ever thought about their church getting hit.
When Ingram first laid eyes on the scene, it broke his heart.
"When I saw it ... I wish I hadn't seen it."
Members spent the first days digging through the rubble.
They found old photos, a book filled with past members' obituaries, the pastor's Bible.
They wanted to worship but didn't have a place. The sanctuary floor was covered in insulation and glass and rubble.
Church members wanted to save the pews, but the cushions were embedded with glass. They hoped to salvage the baptismal tub, but the scratches in the fiberglass may have poked a hole.
But worst of all, they found out just two days after the storm that what was left of the church would have to be bulldozed. The foundation was no longer safe.
"It's a sad thing," Deacon Charles Adams said later. "[But] God works in mysterious ways."
Then came an unexpected blessing.
Ringgold United Methodist Church members walked up and down the street handing out water bottles and snacks.
Then a second blessing arrived.
A man from Cherokee Valley showed up one day with a wheelbarrow and hauled away piles of debris scattered around the church. He stayed the whole day.
Several Dalton, Ga., churches offered to clean up trash strewn along the church property. A group from South Carolina offered to tear down the walls.
"We've seen so much togetherness. It's heartwarming to see so much kindness," Wymbs said.
People were donating so much to the church, members finally had to stop accepting it, the pastor said.
"We've had to turn people away with clothes and shoes, because we didn't have anywhere to store it," Ingram said.
But members are anxious to rebuild.
The pastor has had to remind the congregation that starting over will take time, the biggest obstacle being money -- more than $1 million for a new building.
Excitement runs high at the idea of a new sanctuary. Everyone has ideas for how the new building should look. Larger. More classrooms. All the buildings under one roof. Brick or metal exterior.
"I'm constantly reminding them that you can't eat steak with a hamburger income," Ingram said.
As they began to pray and waited to hear from the church's insurance company, donations started to trickle in. Several pianos and organs were given. Then a single parent mailed a $500 check. American Legion members hosted a Fourth of July barbecue that sold out of meat and raised more than $11,000. All for Mount Peria.
"I wanted to shout," Ingram said. "All of this is what brings you out of your misery."
Early last week, Ingram and the deacons got more good news: Insurance would cover about $800,000 of the church's losses.
That's more than anyone expected, but well short of the goal.
Church members know that, even if they had all the money in the world, some things can never be replaced. The memories. The keepsakes. The familiarity. It's all gone.
That sanctuary was "always home," Moss said. "We'll build back but it won't be the same."
God is punishing your church, some people told Ingram after the storm.
But he doesn't see it that way.
"We're not going to buy that," he said. "We know that God is in charge of everything, but Satan comes to destroy and kill."
Have you ever heard the story of Job from the Bible? Ingram asked.
God let Satan take everything dear to Job, but he wasn't allowed to kill the man. Afterward, Job still praised God.
That's how Ingram sees the storm, and that's what he told the congregation the first Sunday after the storm hit when they gathered at the rubble to sing.
"We're not going to question God," he told the congregation that morning. "We're just asking for strength to go through it."
Packed into American Legion Post 40 on a Sunday six weeks after the storm, Moss swayed along with the music in the front row.
The legion commander had offered the building when the Mount Peria deacons and pastor had run out of ideas on where to hold services.
Now members meet there regularly, file in early on Sunday mornings anxious to catch up over coffee and doughnuts. Cheerful faces eagerly greet visitors. After services, they linger in the foyer and in the parking lot, reluctant to say goodbye.
Before the last note of the piano had faded, a deacon walked to the podium.
"Let us pray," he said.
Hands reached for neighbors across the row and heads bowed throughout the room.
"Thank you, Lord, for just waking us up this morning," he said.
"I ask you, Lord, to give us the strength today."
Soft "amens" were whispered. Heads nodded in agreement.
"You've been good to us, Lord, through the storms and the rain," he shouted. "You've been good to us."
Applause echoed across the room.
As Moss drove by the nearly empty church lot recently, a backhoe scooped up one of the last remaining piles of crumbled drywall and insulation. She slowed but didn't stop. Her eyes darted around.
Nothing but an empty concrete slab. Freshly raked dirt. Cinderblocks strewn under trees. Dirt tire marks on the parking lot.
Then she drove off.
It was really gone.
But she was glad the building's remains finally had been hauled away.
"We can only look at it for so long," she said.
On that first Sunday, Ingram had wanted the congregation to look at the destroyed building. That's why he had planned the outside service in the parking lot.
"I wanted to show them that the building was destroyed, not the church," he said. "The church was still standing. And it is still standing."
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...