By David S. Dockery
Five years ago on the Union University campus in Jackson, Tenn., we experienced the most significant challenge in the university’s nearly 200-year history.
At 7:02 p.m. on Feb. 5, 2008, an EF-4 tornado ripped through the heart of campus, bringing destruction to almost all of our residence life facilities and to several other key buildings. The final assessment put the damage at about $40 million – the greatest natural disaster in Southern Baptist history.
That evening we took 51 students to the hospital. Nine were seriously injured. But amazingly, by the grace of God, nobody was killed.
Those first 36 hours were the most challenging 36 hours of my life, and my theology about angels and God’s providence carried all of us through that time. I’m convinced that on that night, God’s angels were unleashed as ministering spirits to his people, protecting those students in the most precarious of situations.
Looking at the campus the following morning, we wondered not only if the spring semester might be a lost cause, but if the entire university might be as well. The devastation was so widespread and so debilitating that, for a brief period, we wondered how we could possibly recover.
But God’s grace to us hadn’t been exhausted. The Lord impressed upon us his intention to bring renewal from the rubble across our campus, and that’s what we began praying for in earnest. We may have lost multiple buildings, but we did not lose the Union spirit, and that determination and dependence upon the Lord was clearly seen in the days ahead.
Over the next two weeks, our academic leaders, senior administrators, faculty and staff worked tirelessly. Thousands of volunteers and donors came to our aid in our most desperate hour. And on Feb. 20, two weeks after the tornado – despite all of the difficulties and logistical problems – we managed to resume the spring semester.
There was still more of God’s grace to be seen in the months ahead. After meeting that first goal of restarting the semester, the university embarked upon an aggressive rebuilding plan that saw 14 new student housing buildings completed and opened prior to the fall 2008 semester.
Students who could have chosen to attend other institutions remained resolute in their commitment to Union, often enduring uncertainties and inconveniences they didn’t originally expect. It was apparent that our longstanding commitment to building a grace-filled community at Union University was bearing much fruit.
Now five years later, Union University as in institution is stronger than ever. Signs of that destructive night are almost non-existent on our campus. All of us at Union who witnessed that disaster, I believe, live with an increased awareness of God’s presence, his providence, his abilities to preserve life and to provide for us in ways that we’ve never experienced before. We have so much for which to be grateful.
When you look at how close we came to total calamity, and how we were spared from that, we can only cry out, ‘Thanks be to God.’”
Dr. David S. Dockery is president of Union University.