A year ago, Robby Roberson, senior pastor of Oklahoma City, Grace Place, and his congregation were literally surrounded by a sea of flames as wildfires dotted the rolling hills and wooded landscape of far eastern Oklahoma County in which the church complex sits on 10 acres.
In fact, the congregation felt frustrated in not being able to respond in a better way to those families in the area affected by the fires. So much so that the church had been approved as a Red Cross shelter, and was scheduled to conduct training for its members on May 16.
That was delayed indefinitely on May 10 by a tornado which demolished most of the church’s facilities, including its gymnasium and worship center, located at 9300 S. Anderson Rd. The insurance adjustor’s estimate of the damage was $4 million, Roberson said.
“Instead of becoming a disaster relief shelter, we became the disaster,” the pastor said ironically a week later as he scanned the horizon dotted by damaged trees and littered with remnants of the 30,000-square-foot building. “Our facilities were destroyed. But, we have rented something to meet in temporarily, which is no small task out here.”
As he spoke, volunteers were just about to complete removal and inventory of salvageable contents and the church’s general contractor was taking bids for demolition of the old structure, the initial phase of which was completed in August 1994.
Two structures were spared by the storm, a small barn-like storage shed and a youth building, which now operates as the church’s office and operations center.
Grace Place was organized as a result of a split from another congregation. Its first service was held on June 21, 1992 with 207 people present. Roberson has served as its pastor since day one.
“We are averaging close to 300 in worship,” Roberson said. “All my records blew away, so I can’t really say with any accuracy about Sunday School. “But, our worship center would seat 500 with a choir loft seating 50 more.”
Acting with foresight and good stewardship of the Lord’s provision, the congregation had full insurance coverage.
“Thankfully, we were well covered,” Roberson said. “We have been very diligent in that. In fact, just back in January, we upped our coverage a bit, and I’m glad we did.”
The church’s building was destroyed, but its foundation remains, figuratively and literally. More than 300 attended worship services at nearby Schwartz Elementary School the Sunday after the storm and 315 were in attendance on May 23.
“Our plans are to meet there indefinitely. There just aren’t many options in this area,” the pastor said. “We’re grateful for that, but I am going to continue to look at other options because we’re so limited in education space there and our crowds are cramped into the cafetorium there. But, that’s a great problem to have! Still, I doubt we are going to find a better option.”
The school at S.E. 104th St. and S. Anderson Rd. is very close to the church’s location, which is another blessing, the pastor said.
“Thankfully, it’s only about three-quarters-of-a-mile from our location, so it keeps us right here in our community,” he affirmed.
The congregation has planted its roots in the area and the slab upon which the building stood is secure enough to build on again, the pastor said.
“They are going to take everything down to the slab and rebuild on it, although we will make some slight modifications to the new building,” he said.
As is common when disaster strikes, helping hands have been extended to Grace Place from many fronts.
“We’ve had other churches offer to let us use their facility when they weren’t meeting,” Roberson said. “And, we received $5,000 from Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma disaster relief funds. We tried to decline, but they wouldn’t hear of it.
“It turns out it was really helpful. Although the building is covered by insurance, debris removal and restoration of the property is not, so we determined we would use it toward that. We held a church-wide work day May 22 to clean up debris, and more than 150 volunteers showed up to help with that.”
As the congregation looks to the future, it catches up with them quickly. Vacation Bible School is next on the agenda, from 9 a.m.-Noon, June 14-18 at the school.
“Hopefully we will reach a lot of kids we wouldn’t normally,” Roberson said, pointing out that the church has made a determined effort to reach out to the area since the tornado struck.
“On Sunday morning (May 16), all of our families brought two dozen cookies each with them. After church, we divided those up in bags and put a note on it from the church telling the people we love our community and we are in this disaster with them,” he explained. “We spread out and distributed them all over the area. We just loved on folks who were outside trying to clean up their yards. That was great fun.”
Roberson said Grace Place is thankful to those who have extended a helping hand in its time of need.
“Our church is so thankful to Oklahoma Baptists who have reached out to help, have called, sent cards or labored with us in person,” he said. “It has meant a great deal to us.”