Keith Leach was still a relative newcomer to Cambridge, Ohio, and his call to serve as pastor of First Presbyterian Church after 20-plus years working in construction when tragedy struck.
His church, founded in 1809, was leveled by a destructive derecho that wreaked havoc across the Ohio Valley a little more than two years ago.
“I had only been in the community about six months when it happened,” Leach recalled. “It was devastating.”
A derechois a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a land-based, fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms. Derechos can cause hurricane-force winds, tornadoes, heavy rains and flash floods.
This particular derecho struck Cambridge – located in southeast Ohio between Columbus and Pittsburgh – on June 29, 2012. So powerful was the system that it eventually killed 22 people in seven states.
Leach remembers well what happened and the feeling of helplessness he and his congregants had as they surmised the destruction of their building that was constructed in 1957.
“It just so happened our sanctuary was in the way of that strong wind storm as it came through, and it just took the sanctuary and education building down,” he said. “It was such a shock to everyone. The building has been unusable since that storm. We all felt so helpless.”
But that helplessness has been replaced by a sense of joy as the congregation had a groundbreaking ceremony earlier this summer for construction of a new building that is set to commence this fall.
“God has really been with us through this experience. We have been able to feel His presence through all this, and that has been amazing,” Leach said.
Shocked but blessed
While the loss of the building in the storm certainly was a shock to Leach and the 170-member congregation of the Presbyterian Church (USA), their sadness was tempered by the fact that no one was hurt when the derecho blew through around 5:45 p.m. on a Friday evening.
“We were very blessed that no one was in the building and no one was hurt,” Leach said. “Every other night that week someone had been in it. That was God at work.”
Leach received news of the destruction through a phone call from a member and immediately went to the church to see for himself what had occurred.
“I thought to myself, ‘It can’t be. I was just there an hour ago,’” he remembered. “I was still in disbelief as I was going back to the church. There was a lot of not understanding what happened, and it was hard to sink in.”
What Leach and his congregants found that day after the storm was a crumpled heap of building materials that held years of memories for many of those who had attended the church their entire lives.
“It happened so fast. The entire building was reduced to a pile of rubble,” the pastor said. “It wasn’t even real. It looked like what you would see in a commercial for an insurance company.”
Moving forward with building plans
Leaders of FPC-Cambridge have been working with an architect to develop conceptual drawings for a new facility since February. Those plans for a fourth building on the current site and a fifth in the church’s 205-year history are close to completion.
Leach said the existing property, which has been the site of the last three church buildings since the 1840s, will be used, and the foundation of the facility destroyed by the derecho will be employed in the plans.
Members had a groundbreaking ceremony June 29 – two years to the day of the powerful storm that took down their building – to commemorate the occasion leading up to the start of construction. Leach said it will take nine to 12 months, if the weather cooperates, to build the new church.
“As a former general contractor, I’ve built a lot of churches,” Leach said. “I realized early on that while it may have held many memories for many people, it was only a building and can be replaced. The real church is the congregation.”
The groundbreaking was attended by church members as well as many people from the community who have seen how the FPC-Cambridge congregation has rallied to overcome the devastation brought on by the destructive derecho.
“This was one more testimony of the fact that we’re moving forward,” Leach explained. “It was a good feeling to remind us of what lies ahead. We’re not looking at what happened as a setback but as a step forward, and that ceremony reminded us of that.”
Plenty of support and assistance
To get to this point in the future life of the church, FPC-Cambridge received tremendous support and encouragement from the community.
Leach acknowledged numerous offers for meeting space and other forms of assistance from businesses, churches and individuals in and around Cambridge.
“We witnessed what it means to be a Christian by those who reached out to us,” he said.
Since losing their sanctuary, FPC-Cambridge members have worshiped at two different locations. They first met at the local YMCA and had office space at nearby Unity Presbyterian Church.
Since October 2012, the congregation has been meeting in a building belonging to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints less than two miles outside of Cambridge, using the facility at no cost. They experienced a similar situation when they had a building that was destroyed by fire several years ago, and the local Presbyterian church gave them space to worship.
“They were very welcoming when we ran into a similar situation and really helped us out,” Leach said. “We’ve been there almost two years, and it has been such a wonderful blessing.”
A God-filled process
Even though services have been held away from the FPC-Cambridge property, it has not diminished the desire of God’s people to be together and worship Him. Leach indicated that the church has experienced a growth in attendance and in discipleship by expanding its outreach and missions programs.
“The congregation has learned so much about being the church through all of this. We know we are more than a building,” he said. “When you go through something like this, people want to gather, and there is a real desire to be together. We have seen that happen and we have been able to feel the Spirit moving in our midst. That has encouraged everybody.”
Even though the derecho destroyed the church building, Leach said it has served a positive purpose in bringing people together and leading to worship that has become “more energetic and more important.”
“God works in all things for good,” Leach said. “God used this situation for His glory, and our congregation is very aware of that. It has been a spiritual awakening for us in a lot of ways.
“This has been a God-filled process, and we’re excited to see what will happen next, what God will have us do in the next chapter of the church’s life.”