On the night of Jan. 21, 1999, a tornado ripped through the small northeast Arkansas farming community of Evening Star.
Although no injuries were reported in the immediate area, the twister devastated several nearby houses and demolished the Vines Chapel Baptist Church.
The following Sunday, approximately 22 members of the Vines Chapel congregation met at the home of longtime Pastor Charles Abanathy, who proposed three options for the churchs future.
I told them we could disband and forget it; we could join one of the other Baptist churches; or we could rebuild, Abanathy says. It was unanimous. A church is a family. We have that kind of family relationship, and they wanted to rebuild.
There was just one problem. The churchs insurance didnt cover the cost of rebuilding. Abanathy knew that if the new church was to become a reality, he would have to provide most of the labor himself.
Anticipating growth in the years ahead, the congregation wanted to have a building larger than the tiny one that had been destroyed. But since the small lot would not accommodate a larger church, they decided that Vines Chapel would be relocated to the town of Paragould (pop. 21,082) some 20 miles away on a two-acre plot of land the Abanathys owned next to their home.
Then 65, Abanathy retired from his second job as an accountant in April of that year. He and his wife, Gail, had planned a vacation to celebrate his retirement. Instead, they went to work cutting boards and pounding nails.
It had been less than a year since the pastor had undergone double-bypass heart surgery, yet the Abanathys worked through the sweltering heat of the summer, often putting in 16-hour days.
On Saturday nights, they would go home early enough for Charles to prepare a sermon and for Gail to arrange folding chairs for Sunday mornings serviceheld in their living room. For months, their home served as their church. Their bedrooms were transformed into Sunday school classrooms and a baby nursery. Their garage became a church storage area.
I enjoyed it, Gail says cheerfully. We moved the pulpit and organ into the living room, put chairs in the bedrooms. It was no trouble.
And the congregation couldnt have been more thankful.
We never missed a service, says Thelma Devore, a 12-year member of Vines Chapel. With the wear and tear of people being there every Sunday, Im sure it was more work for them than any of us ever realized. But they never seemed to mind I dont think we could have ever stuck together like we did without their leadership.
Because many of the church members were in poor health or had work obligations, the Abanathys did much of the construction alone, although their grown children and grandchildren pitched in to help.
Charles drew the architectural design and helped lay the foundation. Among other things, he and Gail built the interior walls, erected ceiling beams, installed chandeliers, and put in the baptistery.
We did almost everything but lay the tile and carpet and finish the Sheetrock, Charles says.
Their labor didnt go unnoticed.
They were there every day and did an awful lot of hard work from morning until night without much help, Devore says. Theyre just that way.
The Abanathys say they were encouraged by the responses from other churches following the tornado. Many congregations in northeast Arkansas sent money and donated supplies. One church in the state of Georgia even heard about the disaster and sent a $1,000 check.
You dont know how good people are until something like this happens, Charles says. The main thing the whole church has learned is to trust God and He will deliver. God is the one who leads, and when He leads everything will fall into place.
Although they dont often mention it, the Abanathys also invested their own money in the building project, in addition to the land they donated. Despite the sacrifices made, the couple is just glad to have kept the church together.
People have asked me about my church blowing away, and I said, No, it wasnt my church. It was a building. I still have my church, Charles says.
In the Evening Star community, most of the houses have now been rebuilt. And over in Paragould, church attendance at Vines Chapel has doubled. The new building, dedicated in September 1999, has twice the space of the old one. But the Abanathys just chalk it up to a bit of elbow grease.
We dont feel like heroes, Charles says.
Gail nods in agreement. Were just ordinary people. We just do what needs to be done.