ST. STEPHEN -- Ann Ravenel stood quietly behind a fluttering strand of police tape Monday, slowly scanning the twisted wreckage of the church where she worshiped for decades.
The roof of Refuge Temple St. Stephen lay collapsed in a heap of broken timber and crooked metal, ripped from the building by a powerful tornado that roared through this rural community late Saturday afternoon.
The twister left the congregation without a church on Palm Sunday. Its members almost certainly will be praying elsewhere on Easter, as well. But that doesn't seem to have dimmed their faith.
If anything, Ravenel and her fellow church members were left marveling at the power of God and singing praises that no one was injured by the whirling storm.
"The Lord is awesome, and he makes no mistakes. This had to be in his plan," Ravenel said. "He saw where we needed to start over. I know if he blesses us to get back on our feet, what we've done here is nothing compared to what we are going to do."
The wind turned violent about 5:30 p.m. Saturday, and the air shuddered with a roar like an oncoming train. Hail rained from the darkened sky. Tall pines snapped like twigs. Shingles peeled away. Glass shattered. Then, the whole roof came crashing down.
Some people had left the church just minutes before. One man who remained behind to clean found himself huddled on the floor praying as the building turned to rubble around him.
Finished with the church, the twister chewed through a bank of trees and tossed a neighboring mobile home off its foundation, splitting it in two. Hurled by the wind, two boards from the church pierced the side of a storage trailer like twin spears.
Then, it was over, as quickly as it had begun.
As residents took stock, they found a store and a nearby home also had sustained damage. Several trees were down or mangled. But not one person had been injured by the twister that was spawned by the same storm system responsible for killing 45 people across six states.
"We just need to thank God for life today," church member Terry Dingle said.
Congregation members slowly returned to the site on U.S. Highway 52 throughout the day Monday. A few at first, then many more. By mid-afternoon, a sizable crowd had gathered to share fellowship and prove that a building is not what binds them.
People set up canopies in the parking lot and a man fished some chairs from the debris for people to sit on. Deacon Sewall Price fired up a large grill with a load of hot charcoal. A few women offered to cook burgers and chicken as others chatted, sipping water and sweet tea. Kids darted about, laughing and playing.
Various ministers from area churches stopped by, as well, offering space for worship or a helping hand in rebuilding.
"We're praying for them," said Gene Morehouse, minister of the nearby Russellville Christian Church. "We all serve the same Jesus."
Moods had brightened by the time Bishop Walter Lee Jackson, Refuge Temple St. Stephen's pastor, arrived shortly before 3 p.m. He had led them in prayer Sunday and then broke out a hammer and saw to help build barricades to seal off the church property. They have faith he will lead them through this difficult time.
Jackson said congregation members can worship at other churches of the S.C. Palmetto Diocese while they work on rebuilding their own sanctuary. The building, which they had been in since 1991, was insured. But he urged patience as the rebuilding process could take time.
"We are going to rebuild. There is no question about that," Jackson said. "But even if we had the resources available it still could not be done overnight. We just have to be patient and diligent at the things we have to do."
The storm was devastating and discriminating in its wrath. The church's brick facade was left largely intact. The windows still have blinds, a rose bush retained its bloom and a welcome mat still graces the front door. But the interior is a mess. The falling roof crushed the pulpit and pews.
Many more items remain missing and inaccessible, including equipment used for weekly radio broadcasts.
"We lost a lot of stuff," church secretary Jean Snipe said. "I just thank God it didn't happen the week before when we had a yard sale and an outreach event here. There were a lot of people out here that day."
Just through the trees, a chain saw whined as neighbor Sam Wadford worked at clearing fallen trees and debris from his property. His daughter lived in the mobile home that was uprooted and split, but neither she nor her two kids were home at the time.
"If the trees weren't there, the wind would have pushed it all the way across the road," Wadford said.
Wadford runs a video store, tanning salon and used-tire dealership in a building a few yards away. The storm smashed the windows and ripped off the shingles, sending water and wind into the building. Not good for his computers. And he's still looking for some items that got carried away.
The business sign that marked the entrance to his property ended up in a friend's front yard about two miles away, Wadford said.
Wadford said he lived through similar damage during Hurricane Hugo in 1989. He survived then; he'll survive now. But it won't be easy. He said he and his daughter don't make much money. He doesn't know how they'll afford to haul away the wrecked mobile home and buy her a new place to live.
"Right now, I'm just thanking the good Lord we weren't here when this happened," he said. "We've got a lot of damage, but we're still blessed."
Reach Glenn Smith at 937-5556.