‘It’s a total loss:’ Church hosts baptism with portable baptismal pool day after deadly tornado

COLUMBUS, Miss. — When it came time for Sunday services at First Pentecostal Church in Columbus, Mississippi, the congregation was ready, but the church building had been blown apart by a tornado.

The tornado hit Columbus Saturday, Feb. 23. A woman was killed. Columbus Mayor Robert Smith Sr. said 41-year-old Ashley Glynell Pounds of Tupelo and her husband were renovating a house Saturday evening, and when the husband went to get them something to eat, the building collapsed in the storm and killed her. Smith said 12 other people were injured, but the injuries did not appear to be major. City spokesman Joe Dillon said the tornado also seriously damaged a school and two community center buildings.

The next day, officials with First Pentecostal Church picked up whatever furnishings they could salvage and held a prayer service outdoors — complete with a baptism in a portable baptismal pool.

As several people took their turns being baptized, the Rev. Steve Blaylock, who has pastored the church for 23 years, spoke of how the church pulls together during challenging times.

Earlier, during an interview, he gazed at the wreckage and mused, “It’s a total loss.”

“It looks like it hit the very front and pushed everything in,” he added. A tall front wall was pushed down and the roof was ripped to shreds. Water damage was everywhere.

Elsewhere in Columbus, the storm claimed a woman’s life and left a dozen people with injuries that officials described as minor.

Blalock said the congregation is thankful no one was inside the church when the winds ripped it apart. He said some of the women had planned to clean up the church building Saturday in preparation for the Sunday baptism. However, once they heard of the impending storm, they decided to postpone their work.

“Nobody was here fortunately. Everybody was gone,” Blaylock said.

When Blaylock came to the church more than two decades ago, he said the congregation numbered about 30. Six years ago, they remodeled the building. They were about to celebrate 10 years of being debt free in March.

Today, a multicultural, multiracial congregation of anywhere between 100 and 120 people are usually on hand Sunday mornings. Blaylock said they won’t let the storm stop their work. They borrowed a portable baptismal pool from another church for Sunday’s ceremony. And their plans going forward will have to take into account the church’s insurance policy.

But Blaylock said he’s certain of one thing: “We will rebuild. We’ve got a good church here.”

He added, “It’ll be a testimony of God.”

Saturday afternoon’s tornado in Columbus was confirmed on radar, said meteorologist Anna Wolverton with the National Weather Service in Jackson. She told The Associated Press that experts were dispatched Sunday to the east Mississippi city of about 23,000 people to gauge the tornado’s intensity. Officials said a second, smaller twister damaged a mobile home and a shed and snapped trees in a small community in the region that same afternoon as severe storms rolled through.

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