“Bring it on.”
That’s what Terry Makelin, the pastor of St. John’s Lutheran Church in Pilger, Nebraska, has to say about earthly trials, even tragedies, like that which ripped through his town in the form of twin tornadoes nearly two weeks ago.
“Satan and the world can throw whatever they want at us, but even if we die, this is all in Christ’s hands,” Makelin told TheBlaze this week.
The whole church structure was lost as well as the parsonage, which was Makelin’s home.
Even without the building present, Makelin and his parishioners still turned up for service the Sunday afterward.
Daniel Bergquist, a software developer from Lincoln, Nebraska, drove two hours to Pilger to help clear debris. But as a member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod he stopped working for a short time and attended the service Makelin held Sunday. There he put his hobbyist photography skills to use, capturing powerful images that he said shows “the church isn’t a building, it’s God’s people.”
“[The] church’s foundation isn’t a concrete floor with cracked and peeling tiles and muddy carpet, it’s Christ. So long as Christ is, the church shall stand, and he will never fail. There is where our hope lies. This is the real beauty of the photographs, that in the midst of all this destruction, Christ still is,” Bergquist wrote in an email to TheBlaze.
Makelin wasn’t in town when the twin tornadoes tore through Pilger on June 16. He was about eight hours away in Branson, Missouri, checking into a hotel with the church’s youth group. Once they heard the news, calls were made to families and they quickly began the long drive back.
After checking on his parish members that night, he and his wife drove over to the town when authorities opened it to the public the next morning.
“I was a little bit ready for the devastation,” he said, noting that he saw pictures. “But, of course, when you stand in it … pictures don’t really do the damage justice.”
The tornado, he said, “basically wiped this town off the map.” The town of 350 residents saw two deaths as a result of the storm.
On St. John’s property, all that still stood was the bell tower.
Makelin and other volunteers began to pick through the rubble, salvaging what they could.
Before Sunday rolled around, Makelin said he was preparing to encourage his parishioners to head out to a sister parish where they could worship, but when he learned some would not be able to leave the recovery site, he changed his mind.
Makelin said they borrowed candlesticks and an altar, putting it in an area where his office once stood. Tents and chairs were set up for the occasion. He preached from the apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans in the bible, focusing on chapter eight.
“Our rock still stands and our rock is Christ,” Makelin said.
Bergquist called the setting “a bit surreal.”
“The bell tower was a separate structure, and they found a ladder and a hammer and rang the church bell before the service, I was fortunate to be just in the right place to capture that moment,” he wrote.
“The whole thing is just dumbfounding as one who is from out of town, I can’t imagine what it was like for the town residents and the church members. It was a stark contrast between the destruction and the message of the Gospel that was proclaimed,” Bergquist added.
Aside from not having a roof and other things taken from them during the tornado, Makelin said the most difficult part was doing it without a sound system.
“I noticed that as I’m preaching, I’m preaching about comfort and shouting. It doesn’t match,” he said with a chuckle. “But it’s the word that has the power not the inflection of my voice. It’s God’s word that serves the soul.”
This Sunday, nearly two weeks after the tornadoes hit, Makelin said he is planning another open-air service but is still encouraging his own parishioners to head over to their sister parish in a local country town to make room for the volunteers and visitors who can’t necessarily go elsewhere for worship.
Makelin said they are making plans to rebuild but have yet to decide what that will look like. They will be evaluating the number of parishioners who decide to stay in the town and build accordingly.
The Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod has a donation page established to help churches and members who have been impacted by the recent tornadoes.
See more pictures Bergquist took of the service on his Flickr stream.
This story has been updated to correct the church’s name from St. Luke’s to St. John’s.