SELMA, Ala. (AP) — Leading Sunday services on the lawn outside his tornado-damaged Crosspoint Christian Church, the Rev. David Nichols told his congregation there was much for which to be grateful despite the destruction around them.

The tornado that ravaged Selma hit the church’s daycare. It destroyed much of the building, collapsing walls and leaving piles of rubble in some of the classrooms, but the 70 children and teachers who huddled inside bathrooms were unharmed.

“Nothing but by the grace of God that they walked out of there,” Nichols said as he looked at the building.

The Sunday after a tornado devastated much of the historic city of Selma, church congregations raised up prayers of gratitude for lives spared and gave prayers of comfort for lives lost elsewhere to the storm.

Churches anchor the community for many in this historic city. Black congregations also played an integral role in the civil rights movement. The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., whose birthday is celebrated Monday, led the 1965 voting rights march from Brown Chapel AME Church.

The storm system was blamed with killing nine people — two in Georgia and seven in rural Autauga County, Alabama where an estimated EF3 tornado, which is just two steps below the most powerful category of twister, tossed mobile homes into the air and ripped way roofs. The Selma twister, an estimated high-end EF2 with winds of 130 mph, cut a wide swath through the city, collapsing buildings and snapping trees in half. Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey said Sunday that President Joe Biden had approved a major disaster declaration for the two hard-hit Alabama counties.

The hymn “Amazing Grace” floated across the lawn at Selma’s Crosspoint Church, where services were held outside because of the damage to the main sanctuary. The service also honored the quick-thinking teachers who got the children, ranging in age from infants to 5-year-olds, to the building’s inner bathrooms and shielded them with their own bodies as the twister roared over them.

Sheila Stockman, a teacher at Crosspoint Christian daycare, said they made the decision to get the children to the bathroom when they saw the storm was headed for them.

“The walls started shaking and I told my class, ‘Lie down and close your eyes’ …. and I laid down on top of them until it was over,” Stockman said.

Stockman said the teachers tried to reassure the children as the tornado roared above.

“I was praying and I kept telling them, ‘It’s OK. I got you. You’re OK. I love y’all,’ ” Shana Lathan told her class as they huddled inside the bathroom.

When it was over, Stockman said they opened the bathroom door to see the sky above them and parts of the building gone. A room that held the preschoolers moments earlier was filled with rubble.

At historic Brown Chapel AME, congregation members handed out plates of food, baby formula, diapers, water and other supplies Sunday afternoon.

“There are so many people hurting here right now that there is sort of like a mutual misery, which requires a shared hope and a shared vision to help us to help each other through this,” the Rev. Leodis Strong said.

His sermon for the day was titled “A Storm-Tested Faith.” Strong said the community’s faith is being tested because “this is an environment that we have to rely upon that relationship with God and put into practice the faith that we have developed.”

A bust of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sits outside the church. As the nation marks King’s birthday, Strong said King’s message resonates through the disaster recovery.

“If anything, that ought to inspire and motivate us to practice our faith and our understanding of Dr. King’s commitment. So we’ll make it through this. We’re going to make it,” Strong said.

At Blue Jean Selma Church, a racially diverse church with a name meant to convey that all are welcome in any attire they choose, there was a similar message. “Even in the midst of this we have hope,” Bob Armstrong, the church pastor, said.

Church members shared stories of close calls — one man emerging unscathed from a demolished building and another who moved from a building shortly before the ceiling collapsed.

Congregation member Lynn Reeves, who swayed to the modern gospel music beneath the church’s stained glass windows, had a similar feeling of gratitude. With the destruction through the city, it’s amazing no one was killed, she said.

During the storm, Reeves sheltered in the bathroom of the auto parts store where she works. She said her coworker was in the store’s delivery truck when the twister dropped part of a roof on top of him, but he was not seriously hurt.

“It’s a blessing. By the grace of God, it’s a blessing … because it could have been worse,” Reeves said.

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