RINGGOLD, Ga. -- As the dark clouds held back the rain Saturday morning, members of two churches nearly 100 miles apart met in a parking lot off Sparks Street in downtown Ringgold.
Mount Peria Missionary Baptist members invited a church from Temple, Ga., along with the Ringgold community to celebrate a moment that represented healing.
After nearly a year, Mount Peria members will begin to rebuild the church destroyed April 27, 2011, when a massive tornado tore through town.
The Concord Baptist members from Temple drove to Ringgold for the groundbreaking ceremony because they had raised money for the struggling church to rebuild.
"This is a part of you," Mount Peria Pastor Jimmy Ingram said to the crowd. "We've had people coming by since day one [to help us.]"
Through the generosity of the community and region, members say they can build a new structure estimated to cost $1 million without taking on debt.
The church will be constructed over the next six to nine months in the same spot as the old one. But this one will be 19,000 square feet -- nearly 4,000 more than the previous one. Land where a multipurpose building stood will be used for a larger parking lot.
As the crowds dispersed Saturday, members said that rebuilding their church means more than just having a place to worship again. It means that God has answered their prayers.
"I've been looking forward to it," said Ethel Lawrence, a 79-year-old member. "[God] has brought us through all this. I'm blessed."
After the tornado, church members were devastated by the destruction.
The church, in a sense, was homeless, but so were some of the members, said Bruce Archie, a church deacon and choir member.
But the community stepped in.
American Legion Post 40 offered its building for meetings. Congregations from other area churches offered to clean up trash, tear down walls, haul away debris and help members clean up their yards.
And then came the donations. Checks poured in. A Fourth of July barbecue brought in $11,000. One of the largest donations came from Concord Baptist.
The church congregation never heard of Mount Peria or met any of its members. But when Pastor Don Rackley heard that a church had been destroyed, he asked his congregation to put on a gospel music fundraiser.
Rackley drove to Ringgold to deliver the $120,000 check. There wasn't a dry eye in the church, said deacon Allen Smith.
After the donation, members of the two churches did meet. Now they consider themselves close friends, Smith said.
Ingram agreed. God has used others to minister to his congregation, he said.
"Your thoughtfulness has truly created in us gratitude that is difficult to express," Ingram told the crowd on Saturday.
"God has brought us to this time and place; as we break ground today, we are taking the first step in constructing a new building of God's kingdom on this earth."
Joy Lukachick Smith is the city government reporter for the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Since 2009, she's covered crime and court systems in North Georgia and rural Tennessee, landed an exclusive in-prison interview with a former cop convicted of killing his wife, exposed impropriety in an FBI-led, child-sex online sting and exposed corruption in government agencies. Earlier this year, Smith won the Malcolm Law Memorial Award for Investigative Reporting. She also won first place in ...