In most of the pews, one hand held half the hymnal, and the other fanned its owner.
This Sunday had been overcast, and the wind, which had whipped ladies’ hats from their heads before morning services, had died away to nothing by the time worshippers arrived for evening services. Now a sticky stillness permeated Cherrydale.
“Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus!” they sang in the sanctuary of the First Lutheran Church, a moderate brick building erected twenty years earlier when the town and the congregation were growing before the Great Depression began. “Thou hast loved us, love us still.”
Eyes kept going from the hymnals to the windows. Evening was coming, to be sure, but too quickly. The unnatural darkness had everyone on edge, even in the house of the Lord.
And so they sang with more feeling than usual: “Blessed Jesus, blessed Jesus! Thou hast loved us, love us still.”
The Rev. Morton stepped into his pulpit. “Be seated.” As his flock sat, he stole another glance out the windows himself.
“We will continue from this morning’s discussion of the Book of Job,” he said. He looked at the back of the church where the doors were open in the hope of a breeze. A large brown and black dog appeared and briskly trotted down the center aisle. As it neared the steps to the chancel, the dog stopped briefly and made eye contact with Morton.
The minister knew this dog; it was Rex, the police dog belonging to Deputy Police Chief Carlson, who lived across the street from the Lutheran parsonage. The Carlsons were doubtless across town at their church.
“Rex? What’s a Methodist dog doing in a Lutheran church?” Morton asked, getting a few chuckles from the congregation.
Rex barked once and made a dash toward the staircase to his left, quickly disappearing down the stairs.
One of the trustees started to go after Rex, but Morton held up his hand. “Wait a minute, Von.” Morton stood in his pulpit, staring after the dog and thinking hard. From the basement came a single bark.
Morton looked out the window again and then upward. “All right,” he said quietly. “Close enough.” He raised his voice. “We’re going downstairs. Use the stairway you’re nearest to. Let’s do this calmly and orderly, but let’s do it quickly. Quickly, now!”
The minister looked up to the choir loft at his wife, Darla, who was sitting in the alto section, and nodded firmly at her to get her to move. He figured others would follow her lead. She looked questions at him but understood what he wanted and headed toward the stairs to the main floor, ushering her fellow choir members in the same direction.
Everyone else wondered what the pastor was thinking, too. There was some shrugging of shoulders, but there seemed to be no harm in going along with the good reverend.
Another bark sounded above the hubbub of the moving humans.
“Let’s go, friends! Quickly!” Morton shouted. He spotted a knot of younger members. “You!” He pointed at them. “Go down these front stairs. You can move faster. Then get to the other side and clear the congestion at the bottom of the other staircases. Get things moving.” The youngsters, none above 25, sprinted across the front of the church to follow their pastor’s orders.
About half the congregation had disappeared to the basement when a long, low roll of thunder rattled the windows. The sky was taking on an unhealthy green hue. Two more desperate barks came from downstairs.
“Go! Go!” Morton shouted. “Move just as quickly as you can. That staircase over there isn’t being used. Some of you go over there. Do it now!”
When the last two people were out of Morton’s sight, he finally abandoned his pulpit and headed rapidly down the stairs where Rex had gone. The thunder grew insistent, and golf ball-sized hail began to take its toll on the church’s windows.
Morton looked around the basement. Many of his flock were milling around in the middle of the big room or leaning against the structural support posts, but others had pressed up against the cold concrete walls.
He saw Rex, against the north wall; the Howard girls were happily petting him, but the dog still looked nervous.
“Everyone!” Morton called. “Everyone please! Get up against the walls. Get out of the center of the room. There are chairs you can unfold if you can’t sit on the floor, but get against the walls.”
He found Darla and took her to a corner of the basement.
“What’s wrong, Dale?”
“I think plenty is about to be wrong.”
Even through the thick walls, the people could hear the mounting sound of the wind. It increased and deepened, and the adults understood what they were hearing.
Children screamed when the lights went out. Unseen, the Howard girls hugged Rex from both sides and their parents huddled over the threesome.
“Everyone put your hands over your heads!” Morton yelled. Even as he pulled Darla close to shield her, he continued at the top of his voice, “Our Father, who art in heaven…” He continued even when he couldn’t hear himself anymore over the roar of the tornado and the damage it was inflicting on the town.
The worst of the noise began to subside and Morton carried on: “… kingdom, and the power, and the glory forever, Amen.”
A little light came in again through the small windows in the top of the foundation. The glass hadn’t broken.
“Are you all right?” Morton asked his wife.
“Yes. Are you?”
“Yes.” He stood up. “Is everyone all right?” Morton called. Children were crying and dust was heavy in the air, but no one reported being injured.
Someone fished out a pocket lighter and lit it.
“Put that out!” someone yelled. “The boiler’s gas powered! There could be a leak!”
The light was quickly snuffed.
Three of the stairwells were choked with debris, but David Carrender said he could get up the one he was nearest to. “I’ll see what there is to see and come back.”
He returned several minutes later. “It’ll take some time, but we can get out this way.” He sounded weary. “Be very careful, though. The sanctuary is gone. And so are a lot of homes, including the parsonage. There’s a lot of debris to hurt yourself on up there.”
“Praise God, we’re all alive,” someone said.
“Praise God and thank Reverend Morton for bringing us down here,” Carrender said. “What made you do that when you did, Reverend?”
“It was Rex,” Morton said.
“He was the answer to our request. We had just finished singing Savior, Like a Shepherd Lead Us when in comes a German shepherd who runs to the basement. It wasn’t the kind of shepherd we had in mind, but that, along with the darkening sky, was enough for me to take a hint. Tom Howard? Last I saw, your girls had Rex with them. Perhaps you’d return the favor and lead the shepherd back upstairs.”