When a devastating tornado ripped through the heart of Americus on March 1, 2007, this charming Georgia town experienced the greatest crisis of its 175-year history. Lifetime resident Gary Merritt lost everything. Cynical and brokenhearted, he had given up on God long ago—but God did not give up on him.
Warnings flashed across television screens throughout Americus, Ga., advising the town’s 17,000 residents to seek immediate shelter in the basement or a closet of their homes. A powerful F3 tornado was heading east, and Americus was in its direct path.
“I waited patiently for the Lord; he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit, out of the mud and mire; he set my feet on a rock and gave me a firm place to stand” (Psalm 40:1-2, NIV).
It was shortly before 9:30 p.m., and a bare-footed Gary Merritt was in the kitchen ironing a shirt to wear the next day. He caught bits and pieces of the news reports from the television that was on in the living room.
“I heard what sounded like a jet engine coming toward the house,” says Merritt. “I wasn’t sure what I was hearing, so I set the iron down and put the TV on mute. That’s when everything went dark.”
The next few minutes became a living nightmare.
First, he heard the side of the house start to crack. Then one of the walls blew up. The force of the blast hurled him into the bathroom. Broken glass, kitchen items and furniture came flying at him. He crouched down on the floor, covering his head with his hands.
The wind surged around the house, tearing it from the foundation. Merritt felt the house being lifted in the air.
That’s when he started to panic.
“I was being twirled around with everything else. The roof and sides of the house started coming loose.”
The tornado carried Merritt, along with pieces of his disintegrating house, into a 20-foot deep drainage ditch next to his property. Because he was partially sheltered in the hole, much of the storm of debris sailed harmlessly past him.
Merritt lay in shocked silence several feet down in the abyss, surrounded by a tangle of glass, splintered wood and twisted metal. It was pitch black and the rain was pouring down.
“I thought I was dead. I couldn’t move,” he says.
Merritt cried out for help but no one came. Terrified and angry, he called on the God whom he had rejected many years ago: “Why, God? Why are You doing this to me? I don’t want to die in this hole.”
Life in the Pitt
Merritt knows what it means to live in the pit of despair.
Throughout most of his 41 years, the Americus resident dwelt in the recesses of emotional and psychological anguish. First, he says, there was the physical abuse that was inflicted on him by a family member for more than a decade. This man would attend church on Sundays but would turn into a monster during the week, beating up on young Merritt and other family members.
That abuse, combined with the questionable behavior he saw in the lives of some of those who attended his church, turned Merritt against Christianity altogether.
“I was made to go to church when I was a kid,” Merritt remembers. “But I saw the things that were going on, the way people who went to our church were acting. Promiscuity, drunkenness, drugs, lying, all sorts of things. I didn’t want to have anything to do with church or with people who went to church, and I came to the point where I didn’t believe in God.”
The death of Merritt’s mother was especially painful to him. He lived with her in a newly constructed house on a knoll near the end of Church Street in town. She died in 2000, six months after they moved there. Her passing cast him into an even deeper pit of depression and grief.
But lately Merritt had felt that he was getting his life on track. He was certain 2007 would be his year of good fortune.
The tornado changed everything.
Struggling To Survive
A dazed Merritt forced himself to sit up in the ditch. His knee was bleeding and his eyes were burning. His feet and legs ached.
Mustering all the strength he could, he dragged his 6-foot-3-inch frame forward a few inches at a time. In the debris he found some cloth to wrap around his bare feet.
The torrents of rain had turned the ditch into a slimy stream of mud. He grabbed for whatever he could to maintain his footing, but kept slipping and falling. After a tortuous climb, he was finally able to claw his way out.
Covered in mud, Merritt stumbled over to the home of a neighbor, who calmed Merritt’s frazzled nerves and gave him a pair of shoes. The shoes were too small, but they enabled him to walk several blocks to the hospital to receive medical attention. Miraculously, Merritt had no broken bones, just cuts and bruises and a gash in his knee that needed stitches.
The following week Merritt went to the Disaster Recovery Center in Americus to seek assistance from FEMA officials. He had lost his home, his car and all of his possessions. Still badly shaken by the ordeal, he feared he would lose his mind, too.
It was here that he saw the “Need to Talk?” sign. Seated at a table were two chaplains from the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team.
“I told them how stressed out I was with so many decisions to make,” explains Merritt. “What to do now that my house is gone. And my car. I couldn’t handle much more of this.”
Merritt was taken aback. The chaplains, Ray Thompson and Becca Dowling, were genuinely interested in what he had to say. Merritt found himself opening up about other painful events in his life–the abuse from his childhood, the death of his beloved mother.
They offered to pray for him and asked if he had ever received Jesus Christ as his Savior.
“I don’t know if I believe in God,” he said. “I know that something saved me the night of the tornado, I just don’t know what.”
The chaplains shared the Good News with Merritt that God loved him unconditionally. Most of all, God wanted to heal his broken spirit and give him a secure foundation that no tornado or any storm of life could ever shake loose.
Merritt listened intently and prayed with Thompson and Dowling. Something was happening inside his heart. He felt close to God for the first time in his life.
But he wasn’t completely convinced. “Can I really trust in God’s goodness?” Merritt wondered.
Saved From The Pit
Three days later he spoke again with Thompson and Thompson’s wife, Suzanne, who is also a chaplain. This time Merritt was in good spirits. He was staying with relatives and was using their car to get around town. Merritt excitedly recounted the story that a complete stranger had found his wallet and returned it to him, with no money or credit cards missing. The man mentioned that he attended a church in town and invited Merritt to come.
“That’s the kind of church I want to go to,” he said. “I’ll be there on Sunday.”
As he talked to Suzanne, Merritt described in detail the harrowing night when the tornado struck. He had been doing a lot of thinking recently, and he needed some answers.
“If God really loves me, then why did He allow so many terrible things to happen to me?” he asked.
“God does love you, and He hurts when you are hurting,” she began. “He was with you when you were abused as a child. He was with you during the tornado, and He was with you when you were down in the hole. He saved your life for a reason, and He wants you to know Him and love Him.”
“But how can I know Him?” Merritt persisted. “How can I know that He is real and that He cares about me?”
“If you seek Him, He promises that He will show Himself to you. He’s been waiting for you to turn to Him,” Suzanne said.
Merritt wiped the tears from his eyes. “I’m ready to do that,” he said.
Suzanne prayed with Merritt to commit his heart to Christ. Then she read Psalm 40 to him. “This is the psalm about your life,” she said. “God has brought you up from the pit. He’s swept away all the dirty debris of hurt and shame from your heart and has given you a new life.”
Merritt reflected for a moment. “You know, I complained to the city for years about that big ugly hole at the bottom of the hill. It was a breeding ground for snakes and rats.
“Now I realize that hole is what saved my life,” he continued. “That’s how God protected me. He saved me.”
Christ’s Presence in Crisis
In addition to its work in Americus and in other areas affected by the March 1 tornadoes, the Billy Graham Rapid Response Team continues to minister in the Gulf Coast region that was devastated in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina. Through late February of this year, chaplains had prayed with more than 45,000 people in the Gulf Coast, bringing encouragement and hope to many and helping more than 2,600 to make commitments to Jesus Christ.
But it doesn’t take a hurricane or a tornado for people around you to experience crisis. If you sense that God may be calling you to share His love with people in such situations, you can learn how by attending the “His Presence in Crisis” Training Seminar June 4-7 at the Billy Graham Training Center, near Asheville, N.C. For information about this Seminar, visit billygraham.org/RRT or call 1-800-335-1337.