On May 5, several West Side ministers and church supporters returned from a mission in Alabama to aid in the relief effort after the devastating tornado that rocked the state in late April.

Among the participants were Rev. Robbie Wilkerson, Rev. Marshall Hatch and Rev. Cornelius Parks, each of whom are members of the LEADERS Network, which is a collection of churches that provide community outreach services.

Several churches within the LEADERS Network collected offerings and food from members of their congregation on May 1, the evening before the trip.

The group of approximately 25 supporters traveled by bus to the communities of Tuscaloosa and Birmingham.

Wilkerson of New Birth Christian Center says he entered the relief effort with “a heavy heart” due to his personal connection with Alabama.

“I have family and members of my congregation residing in Alabama so going down there to help with the relief meant a lot to me,” Wilkerson said.

In a press statement, Hatch of New Mt. Pilgrim Baptist Church said that those viewing the devastation only through the lens of the media may not fully grasp the extent of the damage.

“The devastation is much worse than it even appears on television,” Hatch said. “We are very concerned about the people being left behind in the very poorest sections of Pratt City, Alabama. We’re going to focus our relief efforts on people who need help the most.”

Wilkerson agreed and adding that one particularly ravaged community, Pratt City, saw several of its small businesses destroyed.

“Pratt City reminds me a lot of Austin in the fact that it is a predominantly black community and has a business district extending down its main streets,” Wilkerson said. “Imagine though if from North Avenue to Lake and Cicero to Austin were devastated by a tornado. It would be a tremendous loss for the Austin community. Pratt is facing that fate right now.”

Along with several small businesses that are in need of rebuilding, the historical landmark Bethel Baptist Church was also lost to the tornado.

Wilkerson says that along with delivering resources like clothes and food to the devastated communities, they also offered spiritual counsel to the Alabama residents who questioned the tornado’s meaning.

“It’s very difficult to not question the reasons for a tornado, which is considered an act of God, without asking why would God do this to me,” Wilkerson said. “But I attempted to impart the scripture in my words of support.”

In particular, the Bible verse Matthew 5:45 which states, “He makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good/and send the rain on the just and the unjust.”

The Associated Press estimates that approximately 238 people perished in the Alabama tornado and caused $294 million in damage across more than 230,000 acres of land in both forested areas and the neighboring counties.

According to Wilkerson, the residents of the area appear headed toward a lengthy reconstruction effort.

He is encouraged, however, by the support the ravaged state has received from across the country.

“The process of rebuilding is always a long one,” Wilkerson said. “But with the outpouring of support the people of Pratt City and Tuscaloosa have received worldwide, I am optimistic that it will recover.”