Four years ago today, I made my first appearance on campus as pastor of First Baptist Church, a few days earlier than originally planned.
Amanda and I returned from a 24-day visit to China in late June of 2005. We made a few final visits with friends and family in Alabama and hit the road to Pensacola where I had been invited to serve as pastor at First Baptist Church. Our plan was to unpack and arrange our things in the missionary house on Lemmington Road during the week prior to my first Sunday. The church had planned for me to preach my first sermon on Sunday, July 10 and to spend my first day in the office on Monday, July 11.
The fireworks of Monday July 4 quickly gave way to the stormy winds of July 5. After the first day of unpacking, we awoke on July 6 to the howling of Hurricane Cindy, originally forecast to remain a tropical storm. To the amazement of local meteorologists, Cindy arrived as a category one hurricane.
As we were picking up limbs and sweeping the sidewalk awaiting the return of electrical power that was temporarily suspended by Cindy, all eyes turned to the rapidly forming storm cluster in the gulf that was bee-lining for the coast. On Thursday morning July 7, Governor Bush declared a mandatory evacuation of our new hometown. Hurricane Dennis was forecast to hit downtown Pensacola head on some time during Sunday morning.
After hearing the news on Thursday afternoon, I went to my new, yet unfurnished office and study at First Baptist Church and met with staff for the first time as pastor. After conferring with staff ministers and deacon leadership, my first official act, regrettably, was to cancel Sunday services, which to my knowledge was a first in the history of FBCP.
Because the repairs from Hurricane Ivan were not yet completed, there was a lot of work to be done to prepare the church campus for the approaching storm. The sanctuary and part of the music suite was still under a temporary roof and numerous leaks had yet to be addressed. We assembled an ad hoc work crew composed of staff and volunteers and began covering musical instruments, re-enforcing windows and doors, and assembling buckets, mops, and towels.
On Friday, the roadways were bumper to bumper as residents were leaving town. As our work force continued to fortify the campus, I met with officers from the Pensacola Police Department and learned of our church’s tradition of housing officers and their families at the Christian Activities Center during storms. Because of its concrete structural integrity and its “higher ground” location, the CAC was utilized as a safe haven and temporary residence, allowing the officers to rest and refresh just a couple of blocks from the police department.
On Saturday, Pensacola was like a ghost town. Stores, businesses, and homes were boarded up but the sky was blue. Strong gusts and a high surf were the only signs that a significant storm was on the way.
After Amanda and I locked down the mission house, we took our air mattress, our sleeping bags, our flash lights, a stash of food, our short-wave radio, and a couple of changes of clothes, and we set up camp in the floor of the unfurnished pastor’s study on the church campus. Throughout the day and into the evening we were joined by 46 volunteers and staff members who were going to ride out the storm with us while trying to minimize further damage to the building.
I awoke around three o’clock on Sunday morning and went to room 220, a large adult classroom where we had set up a television and a few snack items. At that time I discovered that Dennis had intensified and could possibly hit downtown around noon on Sunday as a category four storm, much stronger than the category three previously forecast.
My imagination began to run wild. Having grown up in a tornado prone region of Alabama, I do not suffer from storm phobia. But as I listened to the forecast I was imagining the devastation a category four could inflict on the beautiful beaches of the Emerald Coast. I found myself wondering if the mission house, which was to be our temporary home, would still be standing and if any of our belongings would be found. I thought about the thousands of families who had evacuated the Panhandle and I wondered how many would return to be homeless. And then I thought about the stubborn and the foolish who were riding out the storm in wood frame waterfront homes, structures that would certainly not withstand a category four blast.
I don’t remember ever fearing for the safety of those riding out the storm on our campus. We are well above the flood zone. And the steel and concrete construction of our office space and lower education levels provides bunker-like security. However, I do specifically remember wondering whether the beautiful sanctuary, located atop the highest elevation in town, would survive the impact.
Around eight o’clock on Sunday morning, as our “storm troopers” were finishing breakfast, we began to spread the word that we would have a “come as you are” worship service in the chapel at nine. Six more local residents joined us on Sunday morning bringing our total attendance on campus to 56.
We sang a few hymns and I shared a message on “Listening for the Music in the Storm” from Isaiah 46. We closed with a prayer time for all of the persons affected by the storms.
As we departed the chapel, we were greeted with the face of Jim Cantori of The Weather Channel, standing underneath the “beachball” on Pensacola Beach, giving an updated forecast now projecting Dennis to hit as a category three storm, still aiming for downtown. Because we did not lose power until the eye was almost over us, we watched the approaching storm on radar, and noted the last minute joggle, which eventually re-directed the path of the storm over Escambia Bay. When the storm reached the more shallow waters near the coast, it actually made landfall as a category two. The news was getting better minute by minute.
Though damage to our community and our campus was minimal, watching the storm firsthand was an incredible experience. The first wave produced a fury of winds that shook the building. Utility poles were swaying like tall southern pine trees. Windows were rattling and sprouting new leaks due to the powerful wind gusts and the horizontal bullets of rain. Debris, including tree limbs, construction cones, roof shingles, displaced signage, and assorted garbage, was flying through the air in a multitude of directions. A portable restroom that had been located on the northwest corner of our campus for construction workers went air born like a missile, zooming toward our glass atrium doors before suddenly shifting direction, and landing harmlessly on its side in the east parking lot.
In contrast to Hurricane Ivan, which sat spinning over the Panhandle for hours, Dennis passed in less than an hour, and amazingly, left blue skies and sunshine in its wake. Our storm troopers left campus immediately following the storm to investigate the damage to their own homes, with most incurring minor afflictions. Because of the minimal damage, one news reporter dubbed the storm, Dennis the Menace.
Utility companies had most of the power restored to homes and businesses by Monday or Tuesday of the following week. Cleanup of the church campus began on Monday. By Wednesday we were ready for our Midweek Service. Evacuees returned home from adjoining states throughout the week.
On Sunday, July 17, as a much larger crowd gathered than on July 10, I became the first pastor in the history of the church to have a second first Sunday. And in retrospect, I can confirm that both first Sundays were memorable and significant in getting personally acquainted with the strengths of my new church family.