This story is part of a series marking the one-year anniversary of the 2020 tornadoes. Visit the series page here.
Around 50 people gather for Sunday worship at the Church of Christ at Colonial Heights in Cookeville. Rodney Pitts is the evangelist here.
He’s spent his career, and especially this past year, caring for his people. When the service is over, he can be found standing at the back, checking in to see how everyone’s doing.
“So, Adam, man, how’s it going?”
The man confides that he’s been troubled recently and hasn’t been sleeping.
This attention comes with being a pastor — especially a pastor to people in a small community that so recently lost 19 of their friends and family to one of the worst storms in Tennessee’s history. People are still dealing with the complexities of grief, and Rodney says he has a duty to help others navigate through.
“So that, coming on the year anniversary of some tragedy, they’re not a broken mess,” he says, “that they know there is hope in the Lord, and there is a way to get through all of this.”
But Rodney is simultaneously in the middle of his own grief.
Early on the morning of March 3, 2020, he got a call letting him know that the tornado had touched down on the street of his daughter, Erin Kimberlin. Rodney and his wife, Tricia, immediately headed over. They reached Erin’s house before dawn. Rodney recalls it looked like a bomb had hit the area.
They didn’t find Erin or her family, so they went on to the hospital where they spent the day hoping they were out of town — or otherwise safe. Later, they were told their daughter had died while they waited for news, passing away before they could see her again.
“Our daughter was actually there in the hospital the whole time,” Rodney says. “We didn’t realize that, and they didn’t know who she was.
“She actually lived about three hours while we were there, but we didn’t get to be with her.”
Erin, her husband Josh and their 2-year-old son, Sawyer, all died that day. That left Rodney and his wife Tricia an unfathomable void.
“Erin was not only our daughter,” Tricia says, the tears still coming nearly a year later. “I mean, she and I truly were best friends.”
Tricia says that, over the years, she and her husband have been with other families through their worst days — and that vulnerability has created an intimacy. It’s made it a just little bit easier for them to be the ones in a position of needing help now.
“Our group is not that large,” Tricia says. “And so we’ve always been a family. It was just very natural for them to step in and for us to let them.”
Throughout the year, Rodney has kept working. He’s kept preaching. He says that the loss still catches up with him sometimes and that he’s cried more than he ever thought he could.
But then he gets back to work. The work has kept him going. So, in a year when many of the rest of us are distancing, he’s been plugging in. And he says that losing his family this way has made him a better church leader.
“It’s a shame. I mean, here I am a preacher of the gospel … and it took this kind of rocking of our world to finally help me see what the Lord has been trying to tell me all along: Look, this is what I’ve done for you. Now you do it for other people.”
Tricia says that in the middle of all the destruction, Josh’s Bible was found in the wreckage. In it, he’d written a quote from Jimmy Dean.
I cannot change the direction of the wind, but I can always adjust my sails to reach my destination.
That quote, in Josh’s handwriting, now hangs on the Pittses’ wall. Next to it are photos of the Kimberlin family and an oversized print of sheet music for Sawyer’s favorite hymn, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”
Sawyer loved music. He couldn’t read yet, but he could pick that one hymn out by the shape of the repeated words. There’s a video of Sawyer, back at the church, standing by the pulpit — singing and waving his little arm at a songbook — practicing for the day he would get to lead singing.
Erin had ordered the print of his favorite song for his birthday. But it arrived late — after the tornado had come and gone. They see it now as a reminder that they’re not in this alone. And that they still have what they need.
Rodney used to watch his grandson, wonder what it was going to be like to see him grow up. Now looking at the video, he’s reminded of a lesson he’s been preaching for years:
That life’s a vapor. A very fragile thing.