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Traffic inches along the freeway as snow blankets Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon.
Associated Press/Photo by Ben Gray/Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Traffic inches along the freeway as snow blankets Atlanta on Tuesday afternoon.

Snow, shelter, and ‘renewed’ gospel perspective

Weather | Unexpected winter storm gives churches in Atlanta and Birmingham the opportunity to love their neighbors

After spending Tuesday night stranded at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Ala., one mom told pastor Bill Boyd her child summed up the ordeal with much more enthusiasm than most adults felt about the situation: “Mommy, that was so fun. When are we going to do that again?” Most people were far less sanguine about the icy weather that wreaked havoc across much of the South this week, closing schools and highways, grounding flights, and contributing to at least a dozen deaths from traffic accidents and one mobile home fire. 

“There are still some places today that you can’t get to, but we’re all coming out of it now,” Boyd told me Thursday as he retrieved his wife’s abandoned car from a road not far from their home. Boyd spent Tuesday night with about 65 stranded friends and strangers at his church. Despite the frustrations that rained down on the city along with the snow, Boyd said he was encouraged by how many Christians turned the situation into an opportunity to serve: “You kind of start to go back to daily life, hopefully with a renewed perspective of the gospel.”

Two of the hardest hit cities were Atlanta and Birmingham, where 2 inches of snow Tuesday turned to ice that coated roads as schools and businesses closed almost simultaneously. Commutes normally measured in minutes stretched into hours. One Atlanta woman’s 12-mile trip home took 16 hours. Another woman gave birth while stuck in traffic. And between Atlanta, Birmingham, and Hoover, Ala., at least 8,000 students spent the night at their schools, with police and the National Guard rescuing dozens more from stranded buses as temperatures dipped into the teens. Motorists took shelter anywhere: at fire stations, grocery stores, and churches. 

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In Birmingham, a forecasting mistake led state planners to send snow-clearing vehicles south of the city, where the icy conditions were expected. Businesses and schools, including Covenant’s, operated as normal Tuesday morning. But by the afternoon, the roads were a mess and people were stuck. Covenant sits on a major artery across from Samford University, and cars lucky enough to move at all were sliding off the road.

Staff at Covenant’s day school realized they wouldn’t be going anywhere any time soon, so they cooked spaghetti, chicken tetrazzini, rolls, and hot chocolate—enough for 100 people—and posted signs on the road inviting people inside. As the afternoon wore on, Boyd said he heard a stranded 3-year-old tell his parents on the phone, “I’m fine. Can I spend the night here?”

And spend the night they did, church members and strangers alike, with nursery staff putting rooms together “like a hotel,” Boyd said. Men with 4-wheelers—the only transportation that could safely navigate the streets, even by Wednesday—brought one women and her infant from their car at midnight. Another woman walked 5 miles before someone picked her up and brought her to the church. “She was dehydrated and really not fully with it,” Boyd said.

The situation was the same, on a much larger scale, in Atlanta, where officials had ample warning from forecasters but chose not to ask people to stay home from work and school. Commuters clogged roads, as everyone tried to get home at the same time. Thousands didn’t make it and spent the night trapped in their cars. Ewan Kennedy, pastor of Church of the Redeemer, a Presbyterian Church in America congregation, was one of the people stuck on a road that quickly turned into a parking lot. He spent hours knocking on car windows and offering to help push people up a steep hill. 

Although people were trapped, they had their smartphones and access to social media. Facebook groups soon popped up for shelters, for people stranded, and for people to share stories about their good samaritans. Once people began offering to help, Kennedy said, the effort snowballed and “a lot of Christians began to take the initiative.” That’s how a few stumbled into Redeemer’s parking lot at midnight, emailing the church asking for shelter and a restroom.

“We initially told them to go bang on the office door to wake up our sleeping elder,” Kennedy said. “We couldn’t rouse him.” So, church leaders on the phone told people where to find a hidden key. It was about 4 a.m. when elder Phil Drake, also stranded by the storm, discovered he was not alone. “I just kind of stepped in the room and flipped the light on, and there sat a lady in a chair,’” Drake told me. “It was a shock, and hopefully I didn’t act too weird.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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