RINGGOLD, Ga. — The crowd continued to grow until the parking lot swelled with black and white faces gathered the week before Easter.
They came to witness the moment when Mount Peria Missionary Baptist Church members would dedicate to God the place where their new building would stand. They came to celebrate.
It had been nearly a year since 250-mph winds bore down on Ringgold, eating everything in their path and leaving frightened residents with little to cling to but prayer and each other. In the Ringgold area, eight people died.
The black community around Mount Peria had been in the middle of the tornado’s path the night of April 27, 2011, the church walls crumbling under its power.
Now, Mount Peria members had rebuilt their homes and finally collected the insurance money and donations needed to rebuild their church — a $1 million project.
A group of church members from Temple, Ga., also witnessed the excitement. Their church, with a mostly white congregation, had donated more than $100,000 to help the Ringgold church rebuild without any debt.
There were handshakes and hugs throughout the two groups. The Rev. Jimmy Ingram, pastor of Mount Peria, looked around and smiled. This was his vision for his church.
For 105 years, the church had been a rock to its members and the small black community that surrounds it. Built from the ground up with the hands and donations of members through the years, the church had served the poor and fed the sick, shepherded families for generations.
But now a new vision had taken root, a vision born of calamity and the outpouring of compassion that followed.
The destruction at Mount Peria had been overwhelming. Church members were devastated. But the surrounding community stepped in. Now church members want to return the love, Ingram said.
On the day the first shovel of dirt was turned, Ingram spoke of a new beginning, of a rebirth in more ways than one.
“It’s not going to be just a black church,” Ingram said beforehand. “It’s going to be a place for every race.”
Before the April 27 tornado, the church didn’t have a full-time pastor. Ingram was a short-term fill-in until the deacons could find a replacement.
He came at a time when the church was in need. Their former pastor of 24 years had died, and the man that had filled in for him had resigned. Ingram was only planning to stay for 28 days, but deacons begged him to stay a little longer.
When the ferocious winds ripped through the church walls, Ingram’s commitment was extended again. He wanted to see the church through, at least until a new building was established.
But God had other plans, he said. He felt called to come out of retirement. He was given a vision to see this church thrive again.
“I wanted to see our people more in depth in the word of God. I want us to become more of a spiritual family, and I want to hold them to it,” he said.
In the weeks after the storm, Mount Peria members learned that the part of the church still standing would have to go; the foundation was no longer safe. But God had already provided another way, members said.
A pastor of a church in Temple, 100 miles from Ringgold, saw the destruction on the news. Don Rackley called to see if there was a need in the community. He was told that a church had been destroyed. The news broke his heart. He had to help people of God, he said.
So Rackley went to his congregation at Concord Baptist Church and asked them to hold a gospel music fundraiser; the money would help a church to rebuild.
He was surprised by the outcome. When he drove to Ringgold to meet Ingram in May, Rackley handed his fellow pastor a $120,000 check in front of the congregation at a Wednesday night Bible study. Ingram was overwhelmed. Church members cried.
It was several weeks before the two congregations would meet for the first time. The Mount Peria choir sang for the congregation in Temple.
The group of mainly white members and the black Ringgold members became fast friends and that vision — black and white together — became what Ingram wants to see inside the new church.
Groups of people clustered around tables in a room decorated with American flags and medals erupted in cheers as Phillip Maddox and his wife, Betty, walked across the floor to rejoin the church, three months after the storm.
The Maddoxes had left Mount Peria Baptist three years before. They decided the church’s teachings weren’t what they needed, and there was some bickering among other members.
But when the tornado took their old home church away, the Maddoxes made a decision.
“We felt our obligation was here,” said Phillip Maddox. “We had to try and get Ringgold back.”
Many former members felt the same way as the Maddoxes, church leaders said, and, in the weeks after the church lost their building, a number of former members flocked back.
Mount Peria is one of the few black churches in an area with few blacks. Ringgold’s population is glaringly white, 96 percent. But Ingram sees his congregation as a bridge.
After the devastation, the community reached out to Mount Peria. Ringgold United Methodist Church, located down the street, offered its building, and its members passed out water bottles and food in the community.
Churches from Dalton drove up to help clean up the property. The American Legion opened its doors and also raised $11,000 for the church through a barbecue.
These acts of kindness will be returned to the community, Ingram said. Leaders want to raise up young men who can follow that vision through and lead future generations.
Ingram envisions that outreach continuing. So far, the congregation of about 200 members has about eight white members, he said.
If it were up to him, he said he would change the name of the church to The People’s Church of Ringgold, because he wants to reach out to the entire community.
Other members say they are excited about the church’s new vision.
“[Pastor Ingram] has laid the groundwork for us to work and love one another,” said Becky Maddox. “His goal is to prepare us to serve God first and to serve and give back to our community.”
One of the ways to reach out to the community is through teenagers, said Associate Pastor Danny Wesley. The new church building will have an area for basketball goals, and the church wants to open its doors for young people to be able to play in a Christian environment, he said.
The location of Mount Peria is an asset — downtown and only a block from Ringgold High School. Church leaders haven’t decided yet how they will reach out to the high school, but one idea Wesley has is to begin a mentoring program.
“With a new building, everything starts fresh and starts new,” he said.
Standing on the cracked and dirty asphalt during the Mount Peria groundbreaking on March 31, church member Bruce Archie looked around with a toothy grin at the crowd pouring in to witness the event.
Neighbors, church members old and new, City Council members passed by him, approaching a podium at the front of the lot. To his left sat a pile of concrete slabs, crumbled up and piled in a heap. Nearby sat three heavy machines that would be used to dig a foundation and haul away the remaining concrete.
“Seems like God might be responsible for this,” Archie said, lifting his hands toward the crowd.
Phillip Maddox stood on the sidelines, handing programs to people as they walked by, greeting each person with a firm handshake.
This is his church home now, he said. Like so many other members who were drawn back to Mount Peria, he and his wife feel God’s love permeating the members.
“Once that church gets built, there’s no telling what we can accomplish,” said Betty Maddox.
The storm was a wake-up call for this congregation, the pastor said. So was the storm a good thing in the end?
Well, Ingram said, smiling: “It got our attention.”
He stopped, then explained further: God took a disaster and made something positive out of it.
“We thought it was bad, but God made it good,” he said.
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 ...