Before the plague, there was a tempest. In modern language: before the pandemic, there was a tornado.
In the wee hours of March 3, 2020, a powerful tornado tore through Nashville, touching down in the north part of town and then barreling along for some sixty miles eastward. Twenty-five people died between Nashville and Lebanon: twenty-five irrepeatable human beings, more precious than anything else in this world. But for many of us who remain on the chastised earth, what we remember most from that night is the loss, not of a person, but of a building: a home, a business, a favorite music venue or restaurant that was reduced to rubble.
For myself, I mourn damage done to a certain antebellum, steeple-topped structure in the Germantown neighborhood. The Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is a modest but elegant Gothic church of red brick, and on Sundays it is filled to bursting with folk of all ages and types, from a young reggae singer with dreadlocks to a sweet Polish lady who remembered to give me a birthday card last year despite the fact that we’d spoken perhaps thrice. There are countless young families too; we parishioners pride ourselves on what we affectionately term the “Assumption Infants’ Choir,” commenting that it was “in fine form today” after particularly rowdy Sunday Masses. The white walls reverberate, the stained glass rings with the voices of them.
Or did, until the tornado. Our pastor was awakened by his cat in that witching hour and removed the Blessed Sacrament from the church for safekeeping, but the violent winds smashed much of the sacristy, shattered several of the stained-glass windows, and lifted part of the roof temporarily off, leaving the steeple at an odd tilt.
I awoke Tuesday morning in my untouched neighborhood fully unprepared for the reports of devastation I encountered. The news came through in bits – My family and friends were safe, thank God, but the death count and reports of destruction poured in through texts, emails, news reports…. In short, it was a disaster, and there are no words for disasters that have not been said so many times before that the taste has been chewed out of them and they lack power to comfort or describe.
For me, weak flesh that I am, one message sent chills shivering through my bones and shortened my breath more than any other: Assumption damaged. Police concerned the steeple may fall. Words flew through the airwaves: structurally unsound, north transept collapsed. A picture of a pile of bricks, indecipherable. In tears, I prayed for this building as if she were a sick grandmother and my panicked plea would heal her. I recognized how disordered this attachment to something physical must be and attempted to offer my dear church building up to God’s Will, unsuccessfully.
Amid the rush of text messages, I received another picture: the high altar of the church with its white cloth disheveled, the empty tabernacle above, and on the altar, a slender black umbrella. It lay neatly folded. Could the wind have blown it through the window somehow? No, Father left it behind when he came to save Jesus from the windy storm. (Jesus! You calmed the storm for others, but not this time!) We laughed, relieving a little of the anxious ache. A black umbrella on the altar, laid neatly as an offering.
Why do I love a building with such passion? When I was eight years old, my family joined Assumption parish after two interstate moves and tacky piano music had driven us out of other parishes, starving for beauty. At Assumption, I breathed incense, heard bells, spoke Latin, and was happy. The fact is, beauty can be hard to come by, even in churches. There are several lovely, old churches in the inner city here, but the suburbs sport hexagonal megachurches with less adornment than the average person’s living room. When suburban or rural people commute to the city of a Sunday morning, they are on a pilgrimage to beauty. I can tolerate and respect those whose pilgrimage ends at St. Mary’s or St. Patrick’s, but in my heart I am as fiercely loyal to Assumption as a fan of any sports team, as pro-Assumption as some people are pro-monarchy or pro-veganism. Will I attend Mass elsewhere when traveling or when circumstances require it? Yes, but always with a sense of being a bit of a stranger in a strange land.
But there is something deeper. In my prayers, I told Our Lord, Yes, I know it’s just a building, people are more important, but… it’s my home. I have been part of this parish longer than I have been part of anything other than the Catholic Church herself and my own family. I have belonged to it longer than most people seem to belong anywhere. I often thought I would be married here and have my children baptized here and dwell in the House of the Lord forever. Under the Blessed Virgin’s red-brick mantle, even my body shall rest in hope. Therefore, I asked the question so many have asked down the centuries: Why, good God, have You allowed this disaster to happen?
As the day progressed, there was more news: damage bad but likely reparable. Building closed to the public indefinitely. I was relieved that the church didn’t seem to be in danger of collapsing, but I felt lost, homeless. I imagined the bleak months ahead, wandering through the world, attending a haphazard Mass here and there at other churches during the week, probably cramming into another joyously over-full church on Sundays…. What would we do? What is a parish when its building falls apart? A soul without a body, a ghost. How long would it take for us even to give up the ghost, to cease to be and instead be assimilated into other communities, fondly remembering the days when we had been Assumption?
God is far bigger than my notions of the tragic. Another message: the 6 PM Mass is on! Come to the fellowship hall next door. The news was like seeing a candle lit in a far-off window and knowing that home is nigh. It wouldn’t be Father’s usual elegant Mass, I thought, just a shabby affair kneeling on a wood floor under fluorescent lights with the sound of an industrial refrigerator somewhere in the background, but it would be something.
I ventured out, allowing my car to crawl gently along Jefferson street. There was a moment when I suddenly entered destruction. One block was untouched, the next strewn with roof tiles and garbage and branches, the next blocked off by police. A tornado does that: it selects a particular spot to touch with its awful finger and leaves places a quarter mile away unscathed. I detoured along with the other cars, creeping through alleys. On 11th Avenue, three or four enormous trees had been uprooted and leaned against rooftops. On Monroe, I saw a house that had been peeled open, one whole wall lacking, the way a doll’s house has no back so that you can reach in and move the furniture. The visible room, open to the meddling eyes of everyone, was a bedroom, the sheets only slightly disheveled. Nearby, a small tree appeared to have blown clean through someone’s attic: it was festooned perfectly with pink insulation like tinsel.
I parked a block away from the church at a grocery store and walked the rest of the way, picking my way over downed power lines, splinters of wood, soggy unrecognizable somethings. The neighborhood had turned out to view the remains of itself: “Let’s see what’s goin’ on over here,” I heard a mother say to her young daughters, rather as someone might speak of the next attraction at a fair.
The crooked steeple was visible now over the rest of Germantown, and I thrilled to the sight of it. It’s standing! She’s still here. I slipped past caution cones and men in reflective vests directing traffic and tiptoed into the social hall just as Mass began. Outside, men were noisily sawing apart a tree that had fallen on the power lines. Inside, lo! silence and flickering candles. (The electricity was out, of course; no harsh fluorescents here.) I paused in the doorway and realized that the familiar holy water stoups were there on either side of the door. At the other end of the hall, across neat rows of plastic chairs, was the altar, flanked by two statues that normally flanked the entrance of the real church: St. Therese of Lisieux and St. Anthony of Padua. A veiled tabernacle, a crucifix… beauty. Tears rushed to my eyes again. I stumbled to a seat and gasped silent acts of gratitude. Jesus, You are here! Jesus, You have not abandoned us!
Why does God let these things happen? Several answers offer themselves. A theologian may respond that those twenty-five people dead did not necessarily deserve death any more than anyone else, and explain God’s antecedent will versus His consequent will, how He allows evil but does not cause it. A friend, trying to be helpful, may suggest that God has some greater good He intends to bring out of this evil; for example, you may learn something from it. These people are not wrong, but in this little disaster of my church, I find another theory: God may or may not intend the rain, but He always offers us an umbrella. Where there is darkness, a light shines in the darkness, though we do not comprehend it: the glow of a candle in a de-electrified building; the glow of twelve stars out of a storm-stricken sky.
Rachel Hoover is a technical writer by day and an essayist, poet, and critic in the early evening. Her work has appeared in Crisis Magazine and Catholic World Report.