By Pastor Michael Downey, Charles City Free Church
It was late afternoon on a cold wintry day in Charles City, as I followed the elderly man into his cluttered home on the northwest side of town. He had invited me to see some pictures after I had spoken at my first Lenten Lunch in town.
I was new to town in 1995 and he felt I needed a history lesson on the F5 tornado that changed the city in dramatic ways on May 15th, 1968.
As I sat on a couch that had seen a few visitors before me, he deftly opened the drawer on the weathered desk and placed before me a file of clippings with numerous newspaper clippings and pictures from the locals camera shots.
Immediately he turned his focus toward the newspaper clipping of the overhead view of the city after the tornado had struck that had seven buildings circled. With a cheeky grin on his face he said to me, “What do you see, preacher boy?”
I see a flattened Methodist Church.
He pointed to another building. “What do you see, preacher boy?”
I see another flattened Methodist Church.
He continued pointing to numerous churches and saying to me, “What do you see, preacher boy?” I saw shattered Baptist churches, Catholic churches, Bible churches and a damaged but not destroyed Congregational Church, amid great destruction all around.
Now with great delight and a cheesier smile outlining his aging face, he pointed to a different piece of paper. On it were circled 10 buildings that, while near the rubble, and at times surrounded by it, stood solid, untouched by the devastation.
“What do these buildings have in common, he excitedly asked me?”
I replied that they were all places of gathering for social banter around the brew, or more commonly known as taverns or bars. He then delivered to me the question for which he had invited me into his home. The dagger-like question, of which he knew the only answer I could give when he exhaled his closing move on me by stating, “What do you think of that, preacher boy?”
It was obvious to me that I was had. There was no way out. He wanted me to say God’s judgment fell on all the churches and his grace came upon all the bars.
Mentally realizing the trap I was in as a new preacher in town and not wanting to offend the local tribal people, I looked to heaven and asked the budding theologian a question. “What time of day did the tornado strike this great city?”
It was around 5 p.m., he replied.
“Oh!” I said. I then clicked my gray matter into overdrive and replied in my mind that it was obvious to me what the situation was from God’s point of view. The pastors and priests had evacuated the churches, as buildings are not as valuable as precious people are to God.
These brave servants, knowing the Lord’s work was not complete when the 5 p.m. whistle blew, were all in the taverns. Indeed they were just beginning their daily search of lost souls, as they bravely ventured into all places of gathering for social banter around the brew.
I invite the community to come and gather around the flag pole in Central Park on Tuesday, May 15, at noon, (the 50th anniversary) and tell their stories of May 15th, 1968.
Children from Gospel Lighthouse will be there to sing you some songs and hear your stories. There will also be a special gift for our local police and sheriff’s departments that did so much to serve the people of Charles City on that fateful day.