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'The Church is not a building'

The Valley church in Vilonia was left without a building following the April 27 tornado. The church, along with visitors from across Arkansas, met for a special Sunday service on their former church grounds May 4.

Caleb Yarbrough
Arkansas Baptist News

VILONIA – “The ‘Church’ is not a building,” is a message Matt Rothacher, pastor of The Valley, Vilonia, and Arkansas Baptist State Convention church planter, reiterates to his church on a regular basis. But the phrase recently gained a new meaning to the congregation.

On April 27, a tornado that was a half-mile wide tore through central Arkansas, killing 16 people. In the early morning commotion, Rothacher awoke to the voice of a church member, the local fire chief, telling him the church’s facility had been caught in the storm’s path.

The Valley's praise band leads worship May 4.The pastor said his first reaction was surprise. He had heard reports that bad storms could hit the area that evening. And while he and his family had only lived in the area for a short time, he had been told stories about the devastating effects of the tornado that hit Vilonia on April 25, 2011, almost three years before to the day. 

Rothacher had decided that if in fact the town was to be affected, that The Valley would be front and center, doing all they could for the victims. It didn’t cross his mind that The Valley’s facility, like many homes and businesses on Main Street, would be directly impacted by the storm.

Upon revelation that The Valley’s facility was destroyed, Rothacher was concerned – but not by the loss of the church’s physical structure. To Rothacher, and the rest of The Valley’s congregation, the facility was simply a meeting place and held no sacredness apart from the people who fellowshipped and worshipped within its walls.

Rothacher“This was our church building. But I am happy to say that our Church will not be affected, because this was not the ‘Church,’” said Julie Rothacher, wife of Pastor Matt Rothacher. “Our Church has already been on the ground with several members who lost their house this morning (April 27). After we made sure all of our people were safe and had what they needed, we all kind of wandered over here and realized there was stuff left.”

Chris Colley, member of The Valley, met with other church members, and numerous volunteers, at the church’s grounds April 28. They attempted to salvage items left scattered by the tornado from the night before.

“The way we (The Valley) look at it, the building itself wasn’t the Church. We are the Church,” said Colley. “A tree fell on our house, but we are not really worried about that. Several people I know are dead or severely injured. It has been real bad.”

“The tornado took our entire facility. But our people hear me say every week that the ‘Church’ is not a building. We met in an old Dollar General. If you used to could have bought Doritos there, then it is not a holy place” said Rothacher. “The Church is actually the followers and disciples of Jesus that are chasing God together.”

A sign denoting The Valley's special "We Will Praise You in This Storm" Sunday service May 4.The Valley was planted by Rothacher and his wife, Julie, on March 31, 2013. According to Matt Rothacher, the couple wanted to start a church that would reach the entire community of Vilonia, especially those who were tired of the trappings found in many traditional evangelical churches.

“We planted here, through the Arkansas Baptist State Convention, to be a church for people that were burnt out on religion and legalism. … We have begun to see a tremendous amount of life change,” said Rothacher. “We just celebrated a year anniversary, and the spiritual growth has been amazing.”

According to the Encyclopedia of Arkansas, Vilonia was originally called “Vilsonia” when pioneers founded it in the early 1860s. When the founders applied for a post office, the approval letter came back misspelled “Vilonia.” The name stuck. 

The meaning of “Vilsonia” is the “land of two valleys,” and years later, after hearing the story of how Vilonia got its name, Rothacher decided to name his church plant “The Valley” as an ode to the history of the town and as a symbol of the peace that he wanted the church to bring to people’s lives through Jesus Christ.

On May 4, The Valley held a special We Will Praise You in This Storm service on the cement foundation where their church building used to sit. Members of the church were joined by members of other churches who came from across Arkansas to show their support for the church. Visitors included members of The Church at Argenta, North Little Rock, other churches in Ruston and Hot Springs, as well as numerous volunteers who were working with disaster relief organizations in the area and saw the service and stopped by.

Tommy Castleberry, a member of White Hall United Methodist Church, White Hall, and owner of Excel Construction, heard about The Valley losing their building and brought a semitrailer packed with church pews for the church to use during their service. Mount Carmel Baptist Church, Cabot, supplied chairs, and a family from Central Baptist Church, Pine Bluff, fed the church lunch following the service.

The Valley’s praise band led the large group of attendees in worship before and after Rothacher shared a message. The pastor spoke on the importance of understanding that the storm that destroyed Vilonia was a product of the sinfulness that is part of humanity following the fall of man. He emphasized that the storm should not be seen as a judgment on the people of the town, but as a symbol of the reality of sin’s ugliness and Christ’s amazing gift of salvation.

Rothacher asks Arkansas Baptists to pray for the future of The Valley, but to first pray for the families affected by the storm.

“Pray for Vilonia as a whole. There are some families that are hurting. We had several causalities. One is too many, but we had more than I think anyone expected. On top of that, I know some families that have lost their houses for the second time in three years. This is a very resilient community,” said Rothacher.

Rothacher said the church’s “grand plan” is to “serve here and go there,” and they believe that the destruction of the recent tornado is simply another circumstance in which The Valley is looking forward to seeing God at work in their lives and the lives of their neighbors.

“We are pro-Vilonia. We desire to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the community. We want to make much of Him and bring glory to Him. We want to show people there is hope, even in the midst of the desolation and destruction that a tornado brought,” said Rothacher. “Ultimately, our God is sovereign. He is working behind the scenes for our good even at times when we don’t see that. … He has not abandoned us, and He is to be found even in the midst of the storm.”

“I was telling my wife as we were standing watching people pick up trash and sift through the rubble for things we might could use (that) I just wanted to cry. It had zero to do with the loss of material things,” said Rothacher. 

“It had everything to do with the joy of watching these people pull together for the love of one another, and for what they feel like The Valley means to Vilonia as a whole.”

Contact Caleb Yarbrough at caleb@arkansasbaptist.org.

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