Nathan Handley & Tim Ellsworth
JACKSON, Tenn. — At the 10-year point since a tornado devastated the campus, Union University marked the anniversary with a day of activities Feb. 2 featuring former administrators, students and others closely involved with the event.
Former Union President David S. Dockery, in a Founders’ Day chapel address, spoke on providence, hope and unity the university experienced from the Feb. 5, 2008, tornado.
He recalled sitting in his office and thinking the tornado may have missed the campus when he got a call telling him to come to the residence life area. His mind was not prepared for what he was about to see, as the residence life area was completely in ruins.
“Buildings were devastated,” Dockery said. “The campus remained frighteningly dark, having lost power across the area. Students were stumbling out of the buildings dazed, confused, bleeding from the cuts that had come from the flying, broken glass. Some students were trying to carry other students who had been injured.”
As emergency crews arrived on campus and students were taken to safety, Dockery said the hours were full of prayerful and hopeful moments. The rescue crews searched for bodies beneath the rubble and made sure everyone was accounted for while Dockery and others prayed that their worst fears of losing a student would not become a reality.
“Indeed, the Lord had answered our prayers in ways that baffled every person associated with the emergency response,” he said. “Thanks be to God, there were no fatalities.”
God’s providence did not end there, Dockery said. The next two weeks were hectic as national news media were focused on Union and decisions were made for completing the spring semester and rebuilding the residence area.
“We made more decisions each day than we normally make in a month, and looking back, the accomplishments of each day often included several weeks’ worth of work and activity,” Dockery said. “Those were certainly days like no other.”
Dockery recognized the work of many in the Jackson community who cleared rubble, cared for the injured and opened their doors to students who needed a place to stay or to study. He also acknowledged the generous donations from people and organizations around the country, some of whom barely knew anything about Union.
For Dockery, the tornado showed him the importance of hope and made personal the theological concept of God’s providence. He said he is one of many people whose lives will never be the same after Feb. 5, 2008.
“We lost our buildings, but we did not lose the Union spirit,” Dockery said. “The Union campus, which was already a rather happy and generally unified place, was united as never before.”
Kimberly Thornbury, former dean of students at Union, also shared her testimony in chapel about the day of the tornado. She said she never anticipated what a crisis like the tornado would require and how the university would care for the students, but God showed Himself faithful.
“Before the tornado, the RAs reached out to all the students to make sure that they knew where they needed to be, in the downstairs bathroom,” Thornbury said. “However, our crisis plan never addressed what to do after the tornado when you walk out of your bathroom and your entire living room is gone.”
The campus had 1,100 students who needed beds that night, and thanks to volunteers from area churches, all of them were housed somewhere. Over the next few days, Thornbury said, students and parents had many concerns, and the media and emergency personnel were looking to Dockery, but Dockery always prioritized prayer.
“That kind of godly leadership set the tone for reliance on Christ for all things,” Thornbury said.
The day of remembrance also included a luncheon, with remarks by Carla Sanderson, former Union provost, and Harry Smith, former chairman of Union’s board of trustees, in addition to a special recognition service for first responders.
The day concluded with a community worship service that featured a concert by Christian recording artist Phil Wickham, testimonies from a panel of students who were injured during the tornado and an address by Gene Fant, president of North Greenville University and former dean of the Union’s college of arts and sciences.
Danny Song, one of the panelists, said the tornado changed his perspective about God.
“It’s the collection of stories that shows how big our God is,” Song said. “I used to think that God can’t care about me that much. I’m just one person.”
Now, however, he sees a much broader extent of God’s love, both for individuals and for entire communities.
“God is just as with us now as He was then,” Song said.
For Fant, the tornado was a reminder of how God can redeem what is broken and defective — a description that applied to the Union campus in the storm’s aftermath.
Fant read from the story of Joseph in Genesis 50, when he told his brothers, “You meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive.”
“Out of that devastation came opportunity,” Fant said. “People pulled together. The rising tide began to lift all ships, and out of the ruins came an incredibly beautiful new campus. Does God not redeem opportunities?”
As with Joseph, Fant said, God worked through bad circumstances to achieve His purposes.
“When I think about God redeeming that defective thing that happened, redeeming the brokenness, redeeming all the other things, I think about that — that somebody somewhere may have meant that for evil, but God meant it for good so that many people could live and that His name could be glorified,” Fant said.