Most people can’t say their town was simultaneously put on the map and almost wiped off it in the same day. Yet that’s just what happened to the tiny community of West, Texas, a little more than three years ago, when a local fertilizer plant exploded and shook the town with the force of a 2.1 magnitude earthquake, destroying a good chunk of the town’s infrastructure.
April 17, 2013 will be forever remembered by the 2,800 or so residents of West as the day when their lives were turned completely upside down. Fifteen dead. Two hundred injured. Schools, apartments, businesses, a nursing home—all gone. Five hundred homes leveled to the ground.
Today, however, as the town reaches an important milestone of recovery—the destroyed schools are just now reopening—a pastor is looking back and seeing how God used the church to rebuild West from the ground up.
Referring to himself as the “Disaster Pastor,” First Baptist Church of West’s Senior Pastor John Crowder has played a unique role in helping his community recover. In addition to pastoring one of the larger churches in West, he also serves on the board of the West Ministerial Alliance and the West, Texas Foundation. After the explosion, his church became a hub of activity.
Crowder explained that while FEMA is set up for long-term recovery after a disaster, they are not equipped to handle short-term relief. Even secular organizations are bound to rules that keep them from being able to work as quickly and effectively as churches can, he said.
“It’s popular these days for people to put on spiritual airs and look down on organized religion,” Crowder continued. “But in a disaster, you better hope organized religion steps in. When people are hurting, the church responds.”
Crowder knew that First Baptist was just one entity and that the monumental task of rebuilding would take the collective effort of all the churches in the area. The fact that the West Ministerial Alliance was already in place gave him a starting point of unity among the pastors. However, it was not a formal non-profit group. In order to receive and distribute collective donations to those needing assistance, Crowder immediately began working to establish a 501(c)(3) called the West, Texas Foundation.
Even with the foundation in place, there were still challenges. “Under IRS rules, when someone donates to a 501(c)(3), you can’t just distribute that money across the board. You have to establish need,” he said. “We couldn’t just give money to victims, or they would have to claim it as income. We had to give it to the suppliers instead, which made it more complicated to manage.”
Moreover, the funds that were distributed through the foundation were only able to be given to community members for remaining needs after insurance and any government relief they received. That meant there was a real gap that had to be filled in the immediate aftermath of the disaster.
This is where individual churches stepped in.
“Our churches are small. My church has a couple of hundred people in attendance on a Sunday, but we were able to funnel over one million dollars to victims. That didn’t come from just us, but from outside donations as well,” Crowder said, pointing to the Texas Baptist Men, the Southern Baptist Convention, and the Baptist General Convention of Texas as a few of the organizations that helped to support his own church’s efforts.
While many residents displaced by the explosion found shelter with friends and relatives, some were not so lucky. The Red Cross used the town’s only hotel, which was far enough away from the blast to not be damaged, as a shelter for many of the blast victims. Meanwhile, churches were still called upon to provide meals, laundry services, and showers to victims and volunteers alike.
“My house was across the street from the fertilizer plant, and so it was completely leveled,” said West resident Anissa Adamson, who works at the popular Czech Stop bakery on Interstate 35. “I needed so much help with everything, and was able to coordinate it all—even FEMA assistance—through the local minister’s association.”
Although First Baptist may have been at the center of the town’s recovery, and though Crowder received much of the attention, he is quick to point out that the assistance was cross-denominational.
“There were some folks in town who were disappointed that they couldn’t go to their own church for assistance, but they just didn’t realize what their own churches were already contributing,” he said.
Ironically, Crowder himself was one of those who couldn’t go to his own organizations for help. He, too, had his home damaged in the explosion, but because he was on the board of the West Ministerial Alliance as well as the West, Texas Foundation, he was ineligible to receive support through them. He credits God and his tight-knit community for getting him, as well as others, through the ordeal, emphasizing that “short-term” is relative when it comes to a disaster of this magnitude.
“It took a full year to go from the mindset of ‘How do we live? How do we survive?’ to “How do we rebuild?’” he said. “It takes a long time to get to a place where you can say, ‘We’re going to be okay.’”
Crowder estimates that $2.5 million in relief has been given to disaster victims through the church at large, compared to about $3.5 million given through secular organizations such as the Red Cross. Next to the need, however, he notes that it all looks small.
“They say it would have taken 140 million dollars to get everybody in West—residents, businesses, and infrastructure—back to where they were before the explosion,” he said.
And while the Red Cross and government agencies provided relief of a physical nature, the church provided something that was equally important in the recovery: spiritual relief.
“You have to understand just how big of an impact this was to our community,” Crowder said. “People were desperate, hungry, looking for answers.”
In the days following the explosion, people started calling First Baptist to ask about church services. The road to the church was blocked, and so Crowder decided to hold services on a grassy field on the other side of town. He expected to see numbers close to the church’s average attendance at that time—around 175 people. More than 500 showed up.
“I told the people, as bad as this is, God is bigger,” Crowder explained, saying that message spread beyond just the 500 attendants through the media coverage of that first church gathering after the explosion.
“A reporter from Dallas said he’d never seen anything like this. The message even got all the way to the White House, and President Obama quoted it in his speech,” he said. “Somebody picked up on the fact that through it all, we were trying to glorify God.”
Crowder said that since that day, the church in West has been in revival. “It’s been three years, and we have a packed house every Sunday. I’ve baptized more people during that time than I did in the previous 20 years.”
Today, the rebuilding efforts in West continue. The work is not done; the schools may have reopened, but there is still infrastructure damage that has yet to be repaired. Nevertheless, the community’s sense of gratitude for the recovery it has seen to date far exceeds whatever was lost in the fertilizer plant explosion.
“God made it happen,” Crowder explained. “My motto has become ‘God is good and West is blessed!’”