PILGER — The only thing left standing was the bell tower.
On June 16, 2014, a tornado rampaged through the village of Pilger, and St. John’s Lutheran Church was in the path of its destruction.
The Rev. Tim Booth, then the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Stanton, can still picture the scene.
“It was pretty much total devastation,” he said. “You could kind of see the path as the tornado went through the town.”
The tornado hit the church, as well as the church’s parsonage, and Booth helped the pastor at the time, the Rev. Terry Makelin, with his house.
“I helped with (Makelin’s) house somewhat,” he said. “The building was completely wiped out. The only thing left standing at that point was their bell — the bell tower.”
Like the church that was rebuilt, the congregation of St. John’s Lutheran Church has emerged from the devastation of the tornado and turned the situation into a positive, Booth said.
The resilient attitude of Pilger area residents was evident immediately after the storm, when they held a service the very next Sunday, less than a week after the devastation occurred, Booth said.
Outside, in the midst of upended shrubbery and paved blocks where houses used to stand, congregation members worshipped in tents set up next to the bell and took communion at an altar draped in green for the Pentecost season, a color symbolic of growth in the Lutheran church.
“One of the amazing things was that next Sunday … they had a word and sacrament service, under tents,” he said. “Even though buildings are still destroyed, God’s word does go forth. I think that brought a lot of hope to people.”
Afterward, church services continued in nearby Altona, which Pilger residents were encouraged to attend.
That hope was needed during the rebuilding, as there were numerous setbacks, Booth said. On Dec. 10, 2015, a strong wind knocked a lot of the church building down during the construction. It ultimately was dedicated on Aug. 26, 2016
In the storm’s aftermath, congregation members also were responding to the loss of their own homes. This caused some members to move out of Pilger, Booth said. However, the congregation is now a tri-parish encompassing Stanton, Pilger and Altona, so the current congregation size of 190 is similar.
Another positive from the situation is that housing is now less expensive in Pilger, which has drawn in more community members.
“One of the things that’s happened is housing isn’t as expensive here in Pilger,” Booth said. “So houses have been built or rebuilt and young couples have moved into town because the housing’s just a little bit cheaper.”
Staying hopeful has helped Booth lead the congregation through a time of loss and change. The community again saw natural disaster strike as record flooding ravaged the state in March.
He takes heart in John 16:33, which says, “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”
That message is something Booth finds himself coming back to time and again.
“I preach that a lot — yeah, we have a lot of struggles; whether it’s tornadoes, or floods, or cancer or other troubles, but God’s here to help us through, He’s given us a promise of eternal life,” he said. “I always try to offer hope because we’re going to have destruction.”
The congregation has received so many donations that it’s able to pass on the money to other churches in need from natural disasters. And Makelin has given talks to other congregations and has made himself available as a resource for facing disasters.
Five years later, Booth sees the new growth from destruction.
“A lot of devastation happened, and it was bad for a while. But you know what? God has turned this around and allowed us as a congregation to do a lot of good,” he said. “While it really was devastating for people and church and community, as we’ve gone through this, we’re at a point where we can turn around and help others going through the same problems.”