Grace transforms: After Grace Baptist Academy was destroyed by tornado, school officials vow to rebuild

Staff photo by C.B. Schmelter / The roof is seen missing as debris covers the gym floor at Grace Baptist Academy on Tuesday, April 14, 2020 in Chattanooga, Tenn. The school was destroyed when an EF-3 tornado tore through Chattanooga.

Books litter what's left of the high school building on Grace Baptist Academy's campus.

J.R.R. Tolkien. Thornton Wilder. A biography of George Washington.

The books scatter the gymnasium floor - in puddles of water, buried underneath clots of fuzzy insulation, trapped underneath rows of lockers that fell from the second floor.

And above it all is the blue sky overhead, the sun pouring in from where Sunday night's tornado tore the roof off the gym as it churned through the campus's 17 acres and across East Brainerd.

Jason Smith remembers when the wooden floor was put down in that gym. He remembers because he played basketball for a year on the original concrete floor, as the congregation raised money for something more proper. For a new middle school building. For a soccer field, where Smith helped move rocks. For a new daycare building.

Smith graduated from Grace in 1993. This year, his daughter Lauren is a senior - the last in her family to graduate from the school.

Lauren Smith, 18, walked the baseball field, surrounded by rubble, with her hands stuffed into an oversized white hoodie Tuesday. Jason Smith, 46, paused to wipe away a tear as he looked across the campus.

"It's just so much of my life has been spent here," Jason Smith said. "It's heartbreaking."

And it definitely isn't how Lauren Smith thought her senior year would go.

"We had already left campus even before the coronavirus [pandemic] for our senior trip," Lauren Smith said. "And now this. We didn't know that would be the last time we walked these halls."

Most of her senior class has attended the independent, Christian school their entire lives. Babies start out at the day care as young as six weeks. More than 550 students attend the K-12 school and the church's pews might be filled with 450 to 500 people every Sunday, said associate pastor Mike Swanson.

Many of those same people, despite warnings from local officials and law enforcement, have made their way to Grace since Sunday night to take in the damage. The upper school is a total loss. A power transformer sits, crushing most of the school's band instruments. The netting from the backstop of the baseball field is gone. The concession stand obliterated. The giant steel lights on the football field are bent in half. A sign that reads "Grace Elementary School" was found half a mile down the road, in someone's yard.

Swanson, who has worked at the church for more than 37 years, said if he could be guaranteed that he wouldn't be harmed, he would give anything to sit in the middle of campus and watch the 60 seconds it took for the tornado to come through and tear it apart.

"I got here around 6 a.m. Monday, and it was unbelievable," Swanson said. "When I was taking it in, I want to say it is awesome. We usually use that word in a context that awesome is really positive, but the real meaning of the word is technically that something puts you in awe. Awestruck."

At least two people died in Hamilton County and at least seven people lost their lives in Murray County, Georgia, after an EF-3 tornado struck the area early Monday morning. More than 150 structures were destroyed, including a local public elementary school.

Matt Pollock, headmaster of the school, led representatives of the church's insurance company through the wreckage on Tuesday.

"There is a lot for us as administrators to deal with right now," Pollock said. "But we will rebuild. It might be slow, on other people's time, but we will rebuild."

"Grace transforms" is the motto of the school, and Pollock said he believes it's the motto that will carry the community through.

"This was God giving us a chance to really transform," said Pollock, who has led the school for seven years. "We are going to be able to transform what we are given and what was taken away into something new. Grace transforms."

Speaking of transformation, the school and church had already transitioned to virtual learning and streaming services in response to the coronavirus pandemic and stay-at-home orders associated with it.

"We'll be able to go continue next week without missing a beat," Swanson said.

Clay Fissel, the school's band director, agrees. Despite a classroom in shambles and the loss of the majority of the school's band equipment, he said his students are still being transformed.

"The tornado may have destroyed my classroom, but it can't destroy the memories that we made there this year. Our work isn't finished. We will keep working hard through our online distance learning, and we will keep working towards transformation," Fissel said by email.

Bob Ateca, the school's athletic director and head football coach, still worries. Ateca's youngest daughter is a sophomore at Grace. He lives about a mile from the school in Holly Hills, one of the areas hardest hit by the storm.

Ateca lost his home and cars, and the destruction at the school makes it even harder, he said in an email.

"It's overwhelming, and right now it's hard for me to comprehend what happened at the school because I have so much personal loss," Ateca said. But he remains hopeful.

"God is always in control. He has a plan. All the other stuff is just material things. My family is fine, and nobody was at the school at the time, so we're all blessed."

Pollock and Swanson both said that the church is fortunate to be financially sound. Employees are still being paid and dozens of churches and other independent or public schools have already reached out. Parents are calling, asking how they can help - how they can get their hands dirty, he said.

Like Mark Payton and his wife, Lisa Payton, who boxed up computers, student records and anything else that could be salvaged from the high school's office.

The Paytons have spent years of their lives contributing to this tight-knit community. All of their children attended Grace and now their 16-month-old grandson, Beau Maverick, attended the children's center before it closed.

As she boxed up office supplies, Lisa Payton paused in wonder and began to cry.

"It's just, this is home. It's heartbreaking. I just want to cry," she said.

Mark Payton wheeled more rubber bins of supplies down the hall, loading them in the bed of his truck.

In red letters across his shirt, it read "grace is good."

Staff writer Stephen Hargis contributed to this story.

Contact Meghan Mangrum at or 423-757-6592. Follow her on Twitter @memangrum.