‘Different when it happens to you’: Lakeland church recovering after tornado, food pantry destroyed

Polk County

LAKELAND, Fla. (WFLA) – A Lakeland pastor is taking things one step at a time as he and his church work to recover after Friday’s devastating tornado.

Pastor Matt Gilmore of Mt. Tabor Baptist Church has been on many mission trips, but this is the first time he’s been on the receiving end of a disaster.

He described the moment he got the phone call and learned his church was in the path of the storm.

“I think it’s the moment I’ll always remember now. I was out of town working on my doctorate paper and I had gotten a couple of phone calls that there were storms in the area. Then Amanda White, one of our church members, called me and said ‘have you heard about the church?’” he explained.

Gilmore raced back to Lakeland to find portions of the main building damaged and the church’s ministry center, which houses its food pantry, destroyed.

The food pantry feeds about 175 to 225 people every week. Mt. Tabor Baptist Church partners with Feeding Tampa Bay and the Florida Baptist Church to receive food, as well as buying some their selves.

Gilmore said food pantry services will be suspended for the next two weeks as they continue to figure things out. Other food banks are bringing the church supplies and refrigerators were plugged back in on Monday.

“I’ve had numerous people reach out to me with box truck ideas and we’re getting a storage unit (Monday,) hopefully, that’s going to be delivered. So we are finding a way to reopen and our goal is to reopen the first week of November,” he said.

Services are also suspended at the church until it’s confirmed the building is safe.

Pastor Wayne Roberts of Bethel Baptist Church has opened their old sanctuary for members of Mt. Tabor Baptist Church until services can resume.

Gilmore explained he’s been in many disaster areas and was in D’Iberville, Mississippi 19 days after Hurricane Katrina.

But he says it’s a different thing when it happens to you.

“It’s given me a new perspective of how it feels on the other side. Because you feel a little bit helpless, you feel a little bit like, ‘what do I do next?’” he explained. “Everybody keeps asking me, ‘what can I do to help?’ I don’t even know how to move forward at this point. So it’s little things. Let’s get the flooring up, I know that has to happen. I know we’ve got to get the debris cleaned up, let’s get that done.”

He said the outpouring of support from the community has been incredible. Gilmore is grateful for the prayers, words of encouragement and donations. He said the church will pay their community back with an equal showing of love, as soon as they are able.

“We hope to have a community day in a couple weeks. We’ll just have the community come, and let’s just have a big barbeque together,” he said. “We’ve been working and sweating and cleaning and picking up debris, let’s just come sit down and have a glass of sweet tea and a hot dog and smile at one another. That’s what we’ve gotta do right now.”

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