The Valley. That tranquil bit of countryside I was blessed to visit at least once a week, meeting with friends for a Bible study. Other times we were there just to play or swap cookies or live life together. The Valley conjures up memories of a blissful childhood filled with barefoot children running on the grass, long talks on the wide front porch, and wisdom imparted from an older generation. Sounds of guitars strumming, laundry flapping, and cows lowing also fill my memory.

The Valley was where I milked my first cow, helped with a sorghum pressing, learned to make a cornhusk doll, and sang bluegrass in the old Appalachian style.

All these memories were made dearer by a day that will forever go down in Alabama history: April 27, 2011.

The storms came that day, destroying large swaths of our beloved state. That day we hunkered down in basements and storm cellars, watched the skies, and kept our meteorologist, James Spann, on the radio and TV, listening with one ear all day. We fell asleep that night praying for those affected, pleading with God to comfort, protect, and strengthen those out in the dark of the night.

The following day, those of us residing in the Deep South learned what a tornado outbreak meant: 63 tornadoes on the ground, many simultaneously with others, causing the loss of 252 lives.

As the sun came up April 28, we realized the extent of the damage. The sky was perfectly, totally, deeply blue. A picnic-going sky, apologizing for the damage caused the day before. And the sights it revealed are forever etched into my memory.

The tornado had ripped through The Valley, leaving mayhem in its wake. Two homes destroyed, a third ripped off its foundation. One family looking forward with joy to a heavenly reunion with their father, one family friend we would never again meet on this earth. Someone told me that the tornado took less than 30 seconds to move their home – what a difference 30 seconds made!

We were incredulous as we turned down the road to The Valley and made our way past emergency workers. Everything we had ever seen in pictures or on television couldn’t compare with seeing the aftermath of a tornado in person. This was personal, and grief gripped each of us. It seemed almost as if we were prying into people’s lives as we traversed the road and saw them standing amid what remained of their homes, standing amidst the ruins of their lives.

Landmarks that I was intimately familiar with were gone, decimated by the storm. The cows that were peacefully chewing their cud in the fields were lying dead, their bodies trapped under a tangled mess of once orderly powerlines or flung into trees. Hay fields were gone. Fences that had stood guard over various plots of land were scattered hither and yon like a game of pick-up sticks.

The grass was gone, leaving a miles-long field that looked freshly plowed. Brick homes lay scattered around like building blocks, while trailers stood where they always had, mere feet away. Fireplaces crashed to the ground, while a china teacup sat in its precise place on a dressing table, unharmed and unchipped, just sitting there in the middle of the field. It was as if the very presence of God Himself was in that tornado, and the trees and powerlines left standing recognized that presence, bowing in eternal homage to their mighty Creator-God.

As we bent our minds to literally helping our friends pick up the pieces of their lives – sorting through books and pictures and clothing, searching for missing wedding rings – I saw a beautiful sight. People started arriving to help.

It was breathtaking to see fellow believers start pouring in from Texas, Tennessee, Mississippi, Georgia, and several other states, all wanting to help, to comfort, to encourage. These people were bright, shining examples of what it means to literally be the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, serving others because Jesus would, expecting no recognition, only desiring to glorify their heavenly Father. Their actions spoke louder than their words, and their sacrificial service to others is a lesson I will never forget.

As time slips on, I have forgotten. Not the impact the storm made, but the little details. The little things that left us all amazed at the power of the Lord. But I will always remember the awe I felt as I realized that God – that very same God – will one day judge me for my sins. This is what it means to truly fear the Lord. To love Him, because He is good and gracious, but also to fear Him, because He is powerful.

So, as the anniversary of this day approaches, I think of the mercies of God. I think of the many ways I saw His hand throughout the storm and its aftermath, and I think of those who just appeared, ready and willing to serve. I think of the realization that it takes only 30 seconds to have everything removed and for life to change permanently.

We need to make every ounce of time count, because in 30 seconds the moment that was there could very well be gone, and we may not have another chance – the chance to forgive, to ask forgiveness, to lend a hand, or to offer comfort. Time is too valuable to wast in arguing. Too precious to waste by fretting over inconveniences. Too costly to be annoyed. We need to make our chance meaningful, living life to its fullest extent, for the glory of God alone.

Kaitlyn Smith is a homeschool graduate, intent on pursuing every opportunity the good Lord puts before her. She’s blessed to live a simple life with her family of 11 on their small southern homestead, living for the glory of God alone and finding beauty and joy in the mundane, simple tasks of life. 

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