BIRMINGHAM, Ala. – Macolee Muhammed accepted the prayer of a relief worker who stopped by what was left of her Birmingham home. It didn't matter that she was Muslim and he was a Southern Baptist.
"If you came here to help, the only person who sent you was God," she said.
The storms that roared across the South last week flattened churches and crushed the homes of pastors and parishioners in a ragged stretch from Mississippi to Virginia. At least 342 people were killed and thousands more hurt.
So on the first Sunday after the disaster, believers streamed into houses of worship to give thanks for being spared, to mourn the dead and to ponder impossible questions. Why did some survive without any explanation? Why did others die for no apparent reason?
Many people in this highly religious region saw God at work, even amid the devastation.
"God just put his big old arms around us," said Peggy Blevins, 59, of Rainsville, Ala. "I don't understand why he takes some people and leaves others. But I thank him just the same for protecting us."
When the storm drew near, she and her family hid in a hallway of their house. She believes they survived only because some trees fell on the house, pinning it down and preventing the tornado from hurling it through the air.
"To some people it might sound cold, but God does have a plan," Blevins said. "I know I sound like one of those Southern Baptists, but I am."
In most small towns around here, churches serve as community centers, town halls and gymnasiums. Besides Sunday services, they host Boy Scout troop meetings, neighborhood voting, bake sales, basketball games and Wednesday night prayer meetings.
Some churches were wiped out. Some of those left standing have become headquarters for rebuilding.
American Christian Academy, a private school in Tuscaloosa, hosted a service at a football stadium within walking distance of neighborhoods where several churches were wiped out. The school distributed food, clothes, Bibles and other supplies to residents who came to worship.
"We're hoping to feed them and give them some spiritual food," said Rob Cain, the school's athletic director and campus pastor.
Lisa Thompson, 37, her fiance and her daughter came to the service because they don't know if their church, College Hill Baptist Church, survived. They haven't made it past the police checkpoints that have sealed off the area.
"My faith is stronger now than ever," she said. "I know God will test you, but it can't be nothing but stronger."
Thompson, whose home in a different part of Tuscaloosa was destroyed by the tornado, said she has found strength in the help that her family has received from volunteers who flocked to the city after the storm. She hoped to volunteer her own time at the school.
"I had to do something," she saiunshine through the ceiling of the modest sanctuary. Volunteers sat in the pews quietly watching a worker try to patch up the hole. Others swept up debris and covered the roof with tarps.
When the storm approached, the reverend's family gathered neighbors and took refuge in a church hallway. The pastor tried to alert the four families who lived in nearby trailer homes by blaring his car horn.
"You could hear crackling as the roof came off the kitchen," said Gail Witmer, the reverend's wife.
At the edge of town, the storm punched a hole through a mural of the local high school's "blue devil" mascot. A mural of the U.S. flag was spared.
"Everybody in town is talking about that," said Rachel Mitchell, a 19-year-old college student who grew up in Cordova.
In Rainsville, smashed masonry littered the parking lot of Victory Baptist Church. In the wreckage was an unbroken mirror with a picture of Jesus praying in the garden of Gethsemane.
In the debris-littered sanctuary, a large sign with the church's Articles of Faith was also untouched.
Deacon Calvin Thomas said leaders of the Victory Baptist Church were still searching for a place to hold Sunday services. He believed the storm would strengthen members' faith.
"You might say, `Where was God in all of this?' But I think he's still providing protection. God didn't kill those people. The storm did. He preserves lives."
"I do have questions about why some people were taken, but those are questions I can't answer." he said. "I just know we're all in God's hands."