by Julie Jeffery Manwarren
On Easter Sunday, April 12, 2020, an EF3 tornado plowed a path of destruction through the East Chattanooga, Tennessee, neighborhood of East Brainerd. The 17-acre campus of Grace Baptist Church and Academy took a direct hit.
According to the academy’s headmaster and Clarks Summit University alumnus Matt Pollock (’85, ’98, ’20), “Grace Transforms” became the school’s vision in 2018. They looked forward to much-needed updates to their buildings and prayed for transformation in the lives of students and faculty.
“We had decided that ‘Grace Transforms’ was going to be a call to action for ourselves,” Pollock said. “We believed in God’s transforming work for our students. But we, as a school and as individual professionals, needed to be transformed. That’s what we were pursuing. This was not a new thought when the tornado hit. God had already put it in place.”
Another CSU alumnus, upper school principal Scott Hicks (’01, ’06), echoed that goal. “We wanted to see transformation for our students academically, socially, emotionally and spiritually,” Hicks said.
In 2019, Grace placed small groups of students from different grade levels together into a tribe. School ‘tribes’ bonded and built relationships and comradery. In March 2020, Grace had to pivot to distance learning amid the pandemic, providing resources and remote education for over 400 students. Teacher Gavin Gromacki (’11), another CSU graduate, kept his “tribe” connected through Zoom and an electronic game. He and other teachers worked to find new and creative ways to connect.
“We were committed to making this happen,” Pollock said. “We were convinced that if we were going after transformation, we could not relinquish community and connection and just go to correspondence.
We had to be live with the kids on the screen.”
When a storm arrived just before 11:30 p.m. on April 12, Pollock and Hicks were safe at their homes. They soon learned of the tornado. Many Grace families had property damage. “Our athletic director’s house was completely destroyed,” said Pollock. “They went to the basement, and when they opened the door, they saw sky.”
Less than 24 hours after the storm, Pollock sent a video message to school families alerting them of the catastrophic damage and his goal to “come back stronger than ever.” Hicks led salvage efforts. “Having been a science teacher, I was filled with awe at the power of this storm,” he said.
Previously established distance learning meant education could continue despite the damage. The community was transforming again and grew even closer as they grieved the loss of their church and school and worked together to salvage and rebuild.
Morris Hill Baptist Church became the school’s temporary home. Pollock walked into their office one day and was immediately told, “We’ve been praying for you guys, and we were thinking of ways we can help.” “Here’s another community of believers who have jumped in and helped,” Hicks said. “Morris Hill Baptist Church has moved things around for us and has been so welcoming. That is what this community has done for our community. They have thrown open the doors and said ‘Come on in. We’re glad to have you here.’” All teachers returned for the 2020–2021 school year as Grace opened for in-classroom learning at the Morris Hill location.
“The tornado took a direct hit on our hearts,” Pollock shared in a message to his school body. “We lost our house, but we didn’t lose our home. We are already taking aggressive and strategic steps to rebuild this campus in such a way as to serve our students, our families and our community better than ever.”
Site work has begun with a plan for five interconnected buildings, giving Grace greater energy efficiency, improved security and better traffic flow. The school is projected to move into their new home by fall of 2022.
“When God shows up in a storm, you better pay attention,” Pollock said. “We had been knocked down, but God told us, ‘I’m going to take care of you. I’ve got something bigger and better and more incredible than you can possibly ever work toward. You are not going to remodel this place; you are going to rebuild it.’”
Seeing how God prepared them beforehand, provided through a year of unexpected challenges and helped them to transform for His glory, the people of Grace are poised for growth as they rebuild and continue to serve Christ together.