A Test of Faith

updated 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/20/1994 AT 01:00 AM EDT

IT WAS MID-MORNING, AND THE REVEREND Kelly Clem and her husband, Dale, are standing in front of a pile of rubble that until two months ago was the Goshen United Methodist Church of Piedmont, Ala., 80 miles northeast of Birmingham. As they survey the scene of devastation, cars turn into the parking lot beside them. More than once the occupants—including one young man who gave $1,000 he had been saving to buy a computer—get out and hand the Clems cash or a check for the rebuilding effort. "If we stay here, people will come all day long," says Kelly, pastor of the 135-member church. "They all want to shake my hand, like I'm some kind of celebrity. Sometimes it's really hard, because they all want to ask questions."

The questions, from strangers and friends alike, concern how the Clems are faring after the Palm Sunday tornado that leveled the tiny church and killed 20 people, including their 4-year-old daughter, Hannah. How, they are asked, can they maintain their faith after such a tragic loss? "God has seen us through," says Kelly, 34. "He is with us in the worst possible thing that could have ever happened."

That terrible day started quietly enough. Dale, 34, a campus minister at nearby Jacksonville State University, had taken his students to Oklahoma on a hiking trip, so Kelly got Hannah and her sister Sarah, 2, ready for church herself. Hannah refused to go to Sunday school that morning, so Kelly let her go with her to church to prepare the main service, leaving Sarah in the church nursery. "I usually wouldn't let Hannah get away with that," says Kelly, "but she loved being my helper. It was a special time for us."

At 11:20 a.m., the congregation was crowded into the pews, and two young women had just finished singing a hymn, part of the Palm Sunday pageant. "Suddenly, the lights went out," Kelly recalls. Rain and what sounded like hail started hitting the roof. "I thought, 'This isn't good. This sounds like maybe a tornado,' " she says.

Within seconds, the twister was upon them. "We heard a window break, and someone yelled, 'Everybody down,' " says Kelly. As she made her way to where Hannah had been sitting on the opposite side of the church (Sarah was now at the back with her baby-sitter), the walls began to collapse. A brick hit Kelly on the head, and she fell, dislocating her shoulder. Blood ran down her face. The church was in chaos: children were crying; people lay trapped under debris. On her way to Hannah, Kelly tried to free one man but couldn't move the heavy cinder blocks on lop of him. "I told him, 'I'm sorry, I can't do this,' " she says. "Here I was trying to get to my child, and I remember that terrible feeling, 'Who do I help first?' "

An eternity seemed to pass before Kelly reached Hannah. "I could see her pink dress and pink tights, and I knew it was bad," says Kelly. "She was under the pew, and there was a child on top of the pew who had died." When Kelly touched Hannah, the little girl's body was limp. "There was no blood. She was just gray and cold," says Kelly. Hannah was carried to an ambulance while Kelly, in shock, stayed behind. "I could have gone with her, but for some reason I didn't," she says. "I remember looking up and somebody showing me Sarah. My baby was okay."

Shortly after Hannah was taken away, Kelly saw a child sitting by his lifeless mother. "The boy was crying, saying, 'Mom, you can't die, I'm only 8 years old,' " says Kelly. Seeing the woman couldn't be helped, Kelly administered CPR anyway. "I had to do that," she says. "For that little boy."

About 700 miles away, in Lawton, Okla., the minister who was playing host to Dale and his students got a call on his car phone telling him that a tornado had struck Piedmont. Telephoning frantically, Dale found Kelly at the hospital where she was being treated. "What do you know?" Kelly asked him.

"I heard you and Sarah are fine, but what about Hannah?"

"Hannah died, Dale," Kelly said, weeping. "I'm sorry to have to tell you over the phone."

Dale took the first flight home, and found TV crews descending on Piedmont. Four days later, Vice President Al Gore came to town, promising the area an early warning system for tornadoes. The Clems were overwhelmed: In addition to taking shelter with a neighboring pastor—the parsonage where they lived had been damaged—and arranging for Hannah's funeral, they had an entire congregation to care for. "We had supernatural strength," says Kelly. "I kept telling people, 'Your prayers are getting us through.' "

The Clems had learned to rely on prayer early in their lives. Kelly, whose father was a civil engineer and mother a preschool teacher, was 15 and growing up in Annandale, Va., when she decided she would become a minister. "I never had seen a woman minister before," she says. "I didn't think I couldn't do it, though, because my parents had raised me to think I could do anything."

After graduating from Furman University, Kelly entered Duke Divinity School, where she met Dale, from Huntsville, Ala., who was also studying to become a minister. They married in 1984 and moved to Alabama, where they worked as associate ministers at a Huntsville church while Kelly pursued a degree in counseling. Hannah—whose name means gift from God—was born in 1989. The following year, Kelly accepted the post at the Goshen church. "We got over the initial shock of people trying to figure out what to call me," says Kelly. "And then they just accepted me as pastor."

In 1991 Sarah was born, and it is she who keeps the Clems going now. "We're living out the prayers we've been praying for years," says Dale. "I've had a lot of weak moments. But I go on, because you have to. I'm a parent. I have to take care of my kid."

Neither Kelly nor Dale felt emotionally able to attend most of the funerals of the other tornado victims, but they have since tried to counsel and comfort the families who lost loved ones. Services are being held in the local Odd Fellows Lodge until a newer, bigger church is built on the original site. And the Clems are trying to rebuild their own lives.

On a recent visit to the damaged parsonage that was their home, Kelly noticed that next to one wall, miraculously untouched by the tornado, was a row of yellow and purple pansies. "Hannah helped me plant those the Friday before she died," says Kelly. "They look beautiful."

SUSAN REED
CINDY DAMPIER in Piedmont

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