RINGGOLD, Ga. — From the kitchen, women clustered in groups pull pots from boxes and place white china with gold trim into neat piles. Each new serving tray or pan was bought by a church member who wanted to replace what was broken or lost.
Laughter and even singing echo through the nearly empty fellowship hall toward where men stack chairs and tables in the corner.
This hall will be a place where meals are served each week, where new church members are welcomed and where teens will be invited to spend time in a safe place.
This has been a dream since April 27, 2011, when the Mount Peria Missionary Baptist Church congregation lost its place of worship from 250-mph winds that tore the walls down.
The tornado did more than lay waste to the church built by generations of families. The storm also destroyed many homes in the predominantly black neighborhood surrounding Mount Peria, leaving some families homeless.
Together the people prayed, cried and hoped for the day their lives would be restored.
One by one, they began to rebuild their homes. Theresa Moss, a church choir leader, was one of the first. Then a deacon, General Lee Wymbs, who lived across the street from the church. Each house was more beautiful than the one it replaced.
But the church lot stayed vacant for nearly a year. Members gathered each week at an American Legion hall on U.S. Highway 41 to pray for a miracle.
Finally this spring, the walls went up. And all the while, a movement was growing to reach more people in the community and evangelize.
"That experience made us realize what life was all about," said lifelong church member Becky Smith.
Mount Peria has been a rock in the Ringgold community for 105 years.
Deacons have visited the sick and comforted families who lost loved ones. When the congregation outgrew the building, families sacrificed in order to expand the church.
But it's easy to become complacent.
As Mount Peria leaders and the congregation waited to hear from the church's insurance company, donations trickled in. Many were on the modest side, whatever people could afford.
Then came Concord Baptist Church.
The mostly white congregation from Temple, Ga., held a gospel fundraiser to help Mount Peria. The pastor drove to Ringgold in March and handed the Rev. Jimmy Ingram a check for $120,000. Church members cried.
Meanwhile, old members were rejoining the church and new members were coming. Ingram, who was serving in a temporary capacity when the church was destroyed, joined full-time after he felt called to come out of retirement and see the church thrive.
Once church members had received the help they needed, they began to see needs in their own community that they hadn't seen before, said Phillip Maddox, the church's lay council chairman who heads the evangelical project.
Teens in trouble, without jobs. Kids struggling in school. Shut-ins and elderly without help.
So the people began to plan as the Sheetrock was nailed in place, the bricks mortared and the parking lot slab poured.
"We need to bless someone else because we've been blessed," said Joy Thornton, a Sunday school teacher.
Each time there was movement on the new church off Sparks Street, members drove by, stopped and took pictures. When the bricked church sign was finished, Thornton sent pictures to her friends.
As workers hauled the white steeple to the top of the new roof, 10 women stood on a deacon's porch and shot photos. Students and parents stopped by Moss' office at Ringgold High School to show her the pictures. Moss' grandparents were among the church's original members.
Betty Green, a 79-year-old who sings in the choir, was among those who prayed every night they would live to see the new church.
When deacons were finally given the keys Friday, many people just had to get an early peek.
Moss walked through the foyer, with chandeliers dangling from the ceiling; through the sanctuary with its cherrywood pews and a matching cross pulpit. She felt at home.
She and others never imagined they would have a place better than before.
Yet here they are.
Insurance proceeds are expected to cover about $800,000 of the $1 million rebuilding cost. Thanks to donations and fundraisers, the church hopes to reopen without any debt.
Once each piece of old furniture has been cleaned and returned and everything new put away, church members will begin to emphasize one of their first new programs, life skills and mentoring for at-risk youth.
The program, Maddox said, will teach teens things like how to balance a checkbook and manage money. Members also want to encourage young men to become church leaders.
It's all part of the goal to open the church to the entire Ringgold community.
"We don't want the building to just sit there," Maddox said. "We want it to be used."
The coming days will include five days of church dedication beginning Saturday, followed by the first regular services in the new building on Sunday.
Soon, an estimated 20 people, mostly teens, are expected to be baptized in the new baptismal.
Each one -- like Mount Peria -- born again.
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 ...