ROLLING FORK, Miss. — Rev. Bob Gilliland was sitting in the parsonage of Deer Creek Baptist Church Friday night watching a re-run of Gunsmoke when his son called.
“He said to turn on the news. ‘There’s a storm coming,'” Gilliland said. “So (his wife) Betty and I went down the hall and sat in the bathroom. Well, she sat and I paced in and out into the hallway like you can imagine an old preacher would.”
A few minutes later, an EF-4 wedge tornado around a mile wide slammed into the southwest corner of the Sharkey County town and the pastor’s home. Soon after, Buford Jones, a congregant of the church, was the first person to arrive and pulled the 81-year-old Gilliland and his wife from the rubble of the building. Neither had a scratch on them.
Rev. Gilliland called Jones his hero.
“I just did what I had to do,” Jones said.
Somehow, Gilliland’s blood pressure on Monday morning was better than the average 30-year-old, getting a clean bill of health from medical officials who had visited him in Rolling Fork.
Severe weather and a deadly outbreak of tornadoes decimated potions of the Mississippi Delta, one of the poorest areas in the nation, over the weekend.
Amid intense storms, residents in the region struggled to recover from the devastation on Monday that left at least 21 dead in Mississippi and one in Alabama. Entire towns, including Rolling Fork, were hit hard by the line of tornadoes that destroyed homes and businesses, leaving hundreds of residents displaced.
Pastor hit by tornadoes twice
This wasn’t the reverend’s first brush with a tornado.
On Dec. 13, the Gillilands weren’t living in the parsonage. They were living a few miles away in Anguilla. That night, Betty and the Baptist preacher had already gone to bed, when he heard a roar.
“I opened my eyes, and all I could see was my roof coming off my house and spinning away into the sky,” he said. “I wasn’t in bed Friday night, but I saw my roof flying away into the night again. God just isn’t ready to take me home. I am convinced of that.”
In fact, the only reason Gilliland was even in harm’s way at the parsonage Friday was because his home in Anguilla was a total loss from the EF-2 tornado, and he was forced to live in Rolling Fork. Now, Bob and Betty are living with his son temporarily while different living arraignments can be made. He ultimately hopes to rebuild next door to his son in Anguilla.
National Weather Service meteorologist Daniel Lamb of Jackson, when told of the Gillilands being hit twice by tornadoes, was flummoxed when asked about the odds of such an occurrence.
“Oh no,” Lamb said. “I wouldn’t even know where to start. It would be an infinitesimally small number. Just actually being in the middle of one tornado is a low number. But for two in the span of three months, I can’t even begin to think of how low this number would be.”
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Pastor’s church helps devastated community
Gilliland’s church, about three blocks from the parsonage, suffered significant roof damage and the steeple was toppled. While there is no power and very little non-potable water pressure, the Mississippi Delta native is putting the church to good use.
He and his congregation have opened the church and turned it into what he calls, “a free general store.”
“We have everything from toothbrushes to toilet paper to water and food and clothing,” Gilliland said.
While the sanctuary only has light from outside the front doors, the people of Rolling Fork are coming in and perusing the clothing that is draped across the pews. Everything from baby clothes to men’s and women’s adult clothing rests on the back of every row of the sanctuary.
The fellowship hall has more clothes, toiletries, food, water, baby formula, and likely a hot cup of coffee and a cookie to share with folks who are waiting to help and offer anything they can, even a shoulder to cry on.
“We are here for the community. Whatever they need, we will give them,” said the man who has lost two homes in three months.
Gilliland held church services via Facebook Live over the weekend but said he will have regular church service this upcoming Sunday. If there is still no power, which is likely, Gilliland says the service will be held in the parking lot for all that want to attend.
He already has his sermon ready to go.
“This is what I do. I preach the word of God,” Gilliland said. “Not one tornado or two tornadoes is going to stop that.”
But he said the pastor at his childhood church just up Highway 61 in Valley Park has joked with him about that.
“He said I might want to wait for a while before I come and visit,” Gilliland said. “He said tornadoes are following me around and he just doesn’t want to take a chance.”
In the meantime, the veteran pastor will be helping the people of Rolling Fork to get back on their feet as they all recover from one of the deadliest storms in Mississippi history.
Betty Gilliland calls her husband dedicated and acknowledged they were lucky, to which her husband chimed back, “no Hunny, we’re blessed.”
Contributing: Thao Nguyen, USA TODAY