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Notebook Religion

Every stormy wind

Members of Northway Church gather to pray after their building was severely damaged in a tornado that tore through Dallas on Oct. 20. (Jeffrey McWhorter)

Disasters

Every stormy wind

Dallas Christians rallied to serve Northway Church after a tornado demolished its building, and Northway sought to be a calm and sure retreat for the neighborhood around it

The Walnut Hill neighborhood of Dallas looks less like a cluster of 1960s ranch homes and more like a war zone. Downed power lines drape across brush-strewn roads, and treetops are lopped clean off—where trees are left standing at all.

Shea Sumlin, pastor of Northway Church, recalled the aftermath of the violent tornadoes that struck the Dallas metro area on Oct. 20. “All the power’s out. It’s dark. All you could hear is chainsaws and tears. You could smell the gas leaking as firefighters tried to turn off the gas lines,” Sumlin said. 

Sunday Night Football was well underway when residents heard sirens, began receiving texts alerts, and took cover in hallways and closets. The storms left a 15-mile swath of bricks and timber, with damage estimates reaching the $2 billion mark. Remarkably, there were no fatalities in Texas. 

But Sumlin’s 1,500-member church—and the schools and homes surrounding it—took a direct hit. Insurance adjusters deemed the sanctuary a total loss. The church classrooms are salvageable, but barely. The Sunday night service concluded just an hour and a half before the tornado struck. 

“We had people standing right here where I’m in the chapel where it's obviously demolished, and you can see the glass missing and the large wood pieces missing from the top. I can’t imagine what was going on inside there when it hit, but what a blessing that no people were inside there to receive the brunt of that,” Josh Womack, a longtime Northway worshipper, said as he surveyed the damage. 

In the light of day, neighbors and congregants began to clean up. Some took to social media to reunite homeowners with mementos, like 1970s wedding photographs and baby pictures. Electric utilities, insurance companies, and tree removal specialists lined whatever streets they could maneuver in the area. Sumlin made an action plan. 

“No. 1 was how can we minister to the brokenness around us?” Sumlin said. “No. 2 was how can we secure our building in the meantime to all the danger spots that were part of it? And No. 3 was we need to send some folks out and start figuring out what our future is.” 

Northway’s insurance will cover the bulk of necessary repairs, as well as funds to lease church space during the 18 months it will take to rebuild. Right away, nearby Watermark Church offered its facilities at no cost for Northway to host its Sunday night service through the end of the year. Park Cities Presbyterian Church offered its facilities for Northway to hold a prayer and lament service, and Grace Bible Church will house the congregation for its once-monthly prayer and worship night. Children's volunteers from half a dozen churches across North Texas are stepping in to man classrooms over the next month so Northway's adults can worship corporately at Watermark.   

Northway is in an economically diverse area, and it will be hard for some neighbors to rebuild. Sumlin noted that out the east door of the church are “some of the wealthiest homes in Dallas.” Out the west doors, though, are “some of the most impoverished people in all of Dallas,” many without insurance. 

With Northway’s insurance covering the cleanup and repairs, and a temporary meeting space in hand, the church started raising money to help its neighbors recover. In seven days, it collected over $150,000, all of which will go to the surrounding community. Plus, nearly 1,100 church members went door to door after the tornado with tools, supplies, and food, ready to help. 

“There was even one point when we ran out of supplies that we needed and we put a social media post out, and within 19 minutes we had everything that we needed for hundreds and hundreds of families in the neighborhood,” Sumlin said. 

But the church staff is tired. They had expected to spend the week at a staff retreat in the Texas Hill Country. Instead, they faced the aftermath of a natural disaster, working in shifts around the clock for days straight, after the tornado struck. 

“It’s just like a funeral,” Sumlin said. “You’re grieving the death while at the same time having to exert so much energy to plan a funeral. We’re trying to exert the physical energy to serve needs, but at the same time lamenting our own loss.”

A week after disaster struck, Northway’s worshippers filled an unfamiliar building. The choir lined up on a new stage. Volunteers got their bearings in children’s classrooms they hadn’t set foot in before. It will be a long time before they’re back home. But Sumlin said that emphasizes a spiritual reality. 

“The church is not a building, it’s a people,” he said. “We know that cognitively, but effectively, it becomes a very visceral reality. And there’s beauty in getting to rest in that.”