JACKSON, Tenn. – Feb. 6, 2009 – God has brought renewal out of the rubble at Union University over the past year, Union President David S. Dockery said Feb. 5, and the university must now look to the future with hope.
Dockery addressed about 1,700 people at the Carl Perkins Civic Center in Jackson, Tenn., as part of a special service to mark the one-year anniversary of the tornado that hammered the campus and caused $40 million in damage.
“It was one of the darkest nights in Union history, but there have been so many good days since,” Dockery said. “We’ve learned that God can take actions that seem so bad to us and use them for redemptive good.”
The evening featured a dinner and a worship service with a 250-voice community choir, 30-piece orchestra, Scripture readings and a new video chronicling Union’s progress over the past year – progress which has seen Union rebuild the facilities that were destroyed by the tornado.
But the renewal and restoration hasn’t just taken place to the physical campus, Dockery said. It has taken place in the lives of Union students, faculty, staff and trustees as well.
“One of the big things for me has been understanding what God’s presence really looks like in my life,” said Courtney Bragg, a junior from Birmingham, Ala. “There are times, I think, in everybody’s life when we don’t necessarily understand what God’s doing in the circumstances. We don’t understand how he’s working or where he is. But we know that he’s there.”
Bragg said the past year has helped her to believe even more strongly in the promises of Scripture, and has made her realize that it’s important to choose to believe that God is real and present, even when his hand can’t always be seen.
For Kevin Furniss, a senior from Bartlett, Tenn., the last year has given him a renewed appreciation for life. Furniss was trapped for three hours in a collapsed building on the night of Feb. 5, 2008, and at times thought he was going to die.
But since then, he’s worked in a summer camp, and gone on mission trips to Honduras and Kenya.
“It has really shown that it wasn’t just protection that night, but it was a plan for the rest of my life, that God is still in control and has a future and a plan for me,” Furniss said.
The service was designed as a time of thanksgiving, both for God’s providence and for those who helped Union in many different ways over the past year, Dockery said. He identified firefighters and rescue workers, civic leaders, members of the media, healthcare providers, churches, contractors, parents, alumni, faculty, staff, trustees and other volunteers who gave of their time and resources to get the university to where it is today.
More than 5,000 volunteers worked on the campus in the year after the tornado, and more than 8,000 donors contributed more than $17 million to the relief and rebuilding efforts.
“From the bottom of our hearts, we want you to know of our deep, deep gratitude,” Dockery said.
The trials since Feb. 5, 2008, have served to strengthen the Union community in many ways, Dockery said. The sufferings and struggles have helped those at Union identify more closely with the sufferings of Christ, and have enabled Union students, faculty and staff to empathize with others who were suffering.
The struggles have also brought about perseverance, and have prepared students for other challenges they will face, Dockery added.
Dockery cited the words of the Apostle Paul in 2 Corinthians 4:8, “We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed,” and in 2 Corinthians 4:16, “Therefore we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day.”
Those words have become more meaningful at Union University over the past year, Dockery said, as the university has seen clearly what Paul was describing. The institution can now look forward to new opportunities in the future with renewed confidence in God’s providence.
“We have come to realize that we will never be the same because of this, and we will be different and better people because of it,” Dockery said.