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The tornado demolished homes in Rolling Fields, ripping apart brick walls and splintering lumber along streets such as Pennington Lane and Edmond Lane. Yet immediately across from Pennington and Edmond, Second Presbyterian Church stood intact. It hadn't escaped damage entirely, but compared to its neighbors, damage was minor. Most windows were broken and had to be boarded up. The steeple had a broken weathervane. But the building was sound, structurally safe. And, most importantly, the kitchen was intact.
The fact that the church was spared the violence of the storm was critical to the neighborhood. Most people would call it a blessing.
I was only seven, finishing second grade. We lived in Druid Hills, a small neighborhood just south of Brownsboro Road and off Chenoweth Lane. Situated about a third of a mile south of the tornado's path, our neighborhood's houses were intact. We were members of Second Presbyterian Church, and soon became involved in the relief efforts.
Second Presbyterian immediately began serving the community after the tornado. That night, from what I have seen in some accounts, a field hospital or emergency center was set up. While I remember seeing a few police cars and ambulances parked there in days after April 3, I don't recall a field hospital. My parents also don't remember seeing one, but possibly casualties in the area were minimal and it wasn't needed after the first day. My father, Jim Kinsman, said a couple of nurses were available in the next week giving tetanus shots and minor first aid because people helping clean up damaged properties were getting cut by debris and punctured by nails.
The most significant service Second Presbyterian gave was meals. Thousands of meals, hot meals, served free to those who showed up. "No one asked questions," said my father, when asked about the church's relief efforts. "They served people who lost their homes, but you didn't have to have lost your home to eat. So others could eat there, such as relief workers and people who were helping clean up."
The meals started soon after April 3. My family couldn't recall an exact date, but knew it was within a day or two. The church knew it had to do something, and acted quickly to help, according to my father. Like the surrounding neighborhood, it was without power, so generators were brought in to provide electricity to the kitchen. "The Sunday after the tornado, it still didn't have power," he said. "I remember we went to church, and there was no heat or electricity in the sanctuary. The sanctuary was dark because there were no lights."
I remember that Sunday as well. It was cold, and for the first time, my brother and I were allowed to wear jeans and sweaters to church. No one would be dressed up, my mother said then, not after a tornado. When we arrived, a Salvation Army van was there, with hot coffee.
The Salvation Army may have provided the food for the meals, my father said when we spoke recently. He wasn't sure how the church got all the food, but he didn't think Second Presbyterian bought it. The labor, though, was all volunteer. Church members signed up to work shifts. Even people who didn't attend Second Presbyterian helped. My grandmother, who lived in the Highlands and was not a church member, worked shifts.
My mother, Mary Jean Kinsman, recalled preparing breakfast. "I cooked so much bacon that I reeked of bacon when I got home," she said. "I've never cooked that much bacon in my life."
I went to church with my mother one day while she cooked. I was given a job, too. I cleared tables in the fellowship hall, where the meals were eaten, threw away trash, and wiped the tables. I remember taking a book to read during slow times. I also remember going into one of the preschool or Sunday School rooms to play with other children, possibly at the insistence of my mother who said something about children losing their toys in the storm. None of us can remember if a couple of rooms were open to allow children who were eating there and had lost their homes to play, or if someone was simply watching children whose parents were working upstairs in the kitchen and fellowship hall.
The meals were served for at least a week or two. My aunt, Mary Sue Ewing, recalled eating almost every meal there after the Ewing family was displaced from their severely damaged home in Indian Hills Cherokee Section, near Blankenbaker Lane and Zachary Taylor National Cemetery.
"It was a lifesaver," she said. "We couldn't just go out to eat every meal for that whole time."
The church did not provide cots or temporary shelter for people, but the meals allowed those whose homes had been demolished and those who were helping them to come together in a safe place with a deep feeling of community.
I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a couple of other Brownsboro Road churches that helped. Broadway Baptist Church was a police command center for the Rolling Fields and Indian Hills disaster areas. Police helicopters would take off and land in the parking lot at the rear of the church property, which was behind houses on our street. We sat in our dark living room that night, listening to the radio, while searchlights from helicopters danced through our front windows and along the walls as the aircraft flew in and out of the church property. And though my family did not remember this, according to someone's recollection in one of the books about the tornado, Christ Church United Methodist prepared meals.