For survivors, church is their foundation

Published February 5, 2007

LADY LAKE - The Rev. Larry Lynn stood on his church's crumbling concrete foundation. Splintered wood and bent steel beams stuck out behind him. Fallen power lines snaked through broken tree branches above.

"This pile of rubble gave us a platform to speak to the world today," the Pentecostal pastor said.

The tornado that ripped through Central Florida early Friday, killing 20 people, destroyed the 31-year-old Lady Lake Church of God.

But the building was merely a meeting place, Lynn said Sunday, preaching to more than 200, including Gov. Charlie Crist and dozens of television news crews.

Choir members sang beside him:

On Christ the solid rock I stand

All other ground is sinking sand

"There are some folks down south of us who are going to be getting fanatical about a football today," Lynn said. "We're just fanatical about Jesus."

In his sermon, he urged listeners to start anew and keep faith.

Congregation members stood under a blue, cloud-streaked sky, swaying and shouting, "Praise the Lord!"

Some of them sat on dusty chairs that had been pulled out of the rubble. Others brought blankets or lawn chairs from home.

Kathy Fillman, 53, was in the front row, only a few feet from the church's fallen steeple. She waved a red flag that said "Holy Ghost Fire."

"The church is the people," she said. "Our prayer is that we touch the unsaved people."

Choir members clapped, stomped and shouted, "Hallelujah!"

They finished with Amazing Grace.

Crist slipped out of his front row seat 40 minutes into the service. It was his third visit to the demolished church since Friday.

He praised Lynn for his "absolutely infectious" spirit.

"God bless you. God bless your church. God bless Florida," he said.

As the audience thinned out, Suzette Thiel, 40, moved to the front row. She wore a cross necklace and a backpack full of Gatorade. In her hands, she clutched her leather-bound Bible.

Between its tattered pages were news clippings showing the tornado-ravaged spot in the Lady Lake mobile home park where her trailer once stood.

She found the Bible in a pond Friday. It was one of the few items she was able to salvage.

As the pastor spoke, Thiel wiped away tears and nodded her head.

"Now we've just got to pray to Jesus," she said, "and pray we can get back on our feet again."

Catherine E. Shoichet can be reached at cshoichet@sptimes.com or 352 860-7309.