Prayers for the Southland

I lived through one tornado. It was the summer of 1977. I was working as a summer missionary with the Southern Baptist Convention. When I applied for the position they asked me for my first choice for service, and being a homesick Georgia girl, I put down Atlanta.  I got my 3rd choice — the Midwest. Gary. Portage. Michigan City.

Small churches. Bible clubs in the backyards. Two-people staff. Underpaid, overworked pastors. And the budding of a faith that would ask more questions than answer them.

It was a hard, hard summer. I was moving from church to church, parsonage to parsonage. And I couldn’t help but notice how frugal all those pastors lived. How their wives stretched those meals to include a couple more mouths. I was paired with a pastor’s daughter from Atlanta. Penny. She prayed the same prayer all the time:

Dear Jesus

Bless _______.

Thank you ________.

In Jesus Name,


She was very sweet. We had nothing in common.

Elvis died that summer. His death rocked my world in all the wrong ways. That was the summer when all the fears of a chaotic childhood burst into full-bloom.

I’ve never understood why then, why there. But I’ve always attributed it to Elvis dying.

Why not?

But then I  saw this yesterday

And I remembered the tornado.

I was at the house, alone. The host family was working. My partner Penny had been running a different VBS in another town for the week.

It was 3 p.m. Maybe 4ish. It had been storming all day. I was reading and pretty much oblivious to what was going on. Then the hostess of the house called.

“Get to the basement,” she said.


“Go to the basement!” She was very excited, in all the wrong ways. “There’s a tornado headed your way. You’ll be fine, but get to the basement. Shut the door. Stay away from the windows.”

What are you going to say to that?


I really hated the thought of dying in a basement I’d never even been into. I don’t know about you, but I’ve always planned on dying in a familiar place.

I grabbed the Bible on my way downstairs. Unaware of how long Illinois tornadoes last, I figured I’d better have some reading material. It’s the sawhorse I remember best. I crouched down beside it, not because it offered any sort of protection, but it was in the middle of the room, away from the windows. It made a nice altar. I couldn’t see much from my crouching point, but I could see the way everything outside turned a fluorescent green. That was weird to me.

And the noise.

It did sound like a train.

I spoke to my friend Michael in Birmingham today. He said that although the tornado was north of him he could hear that same train sound I heard back in 1977.

I love the Southland. I’m heartsick at all they’ve lost in these storms. I know you are as well.

I still have a faith that offers little in ways of answers but compels me to ask all sorts of questions. Michael told me that much of the damage in his area affected the poorer parts of town.

It seems to happen that way a lot of the time, that those who can least afford it, get hit the worst. Those jokes about double-wides and trailers are no joke when you’re the one hunkered down inside them.

I don’t even know how to pray, so I find myself turning to Penny’s example.

Dear Jesus:

Bless these people, restore their strength, encourage them, heal the wounded and the brokenhearted.

Thank you for your faithfulness, which is not deterred by storms, nor death, nor destruction of any sort.  We recognize that our circumstances do not determine your character, or your love for us.

Thank you for that.

In Jesus name,


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  • Thank you, Karen.

  • I’ve been away from the television and computer for a good part of the day, but I’ve seen and heard enough to know that many have died and there is much destruction in the south. I echo your prayer.

  • We missed the big storms in Knoxville by minutes. The area we were in at the doctor’s office was nailed with baseball sized hail. We had tornado warnings for a lot of the day, but missed the worst of it. 30 miles south of us in Bledsoe County there were 4 people killed.

    • Karen Spears Zacharias

      Wow Gary! So glad you all are ok.

  • Debbie

    It is all so terribly sad…praying for your homeland…

  • This is devastating. I hope the royal wedding doesn’t push this off of the news, because it needs to stay there for a while.

  • Indeed, this is heavy on so many hearts.


  • kim

    Thanks for the prayer. I was struck as well at how it seems that those least able to contend with the damage do seem to get hit the worst. My own bordering and very economically sound county with well insured citizenry had several tornadoes fly over, but little real damage.

    It just stinks in so many ways. And it makes me ask all the more, “What must I do as a child of God to help show His presence in the suffering?” We are wrestling here, students and teachers alike, to not succumb to guilt but to meet this call to compassion.

    Doors are beginning to open to us to go and help, yes with our funds and donations of supplies, but also with our presence…Please pray that we will have the humility and grace to walk through all the doors that we can.

  • Bless Alabama, Mississippi, Kentucky, Virginia, Tennessee, Arkansas, Louisiana, Georgia, and all of us. Thank you for Karen’s heart, thank you for a new day, thank you for the grace to keep going. In Jesus Name.

  • I also served as and SBC summer missionary in Michigan in 1977 (central MI). Many of the places I have lived in AL Birmingham, Tuscaloosa and Huntsville were devastated. Blessings to those whose lives were torn apart and to those responding to meet needs.

  • Gloria

    Amen Karen! I was riveted by the images coming from Tuscaloosa. I have stood right there on some of those streets when a friend of mine lived there and I visited. I really can’t process it all but I can pray!