The mall store building that housed The Valley Church in downtown Vilonia was torn apart by Sunday evening’s killer tornado there, but Pastor Matt Rothacher proclaims that his church shouldn’t be referenced in past tense.
“No sir,” Rothacher, the former minister of youth and recreation at Pine Bluff’s Central Baptist Church at 6107 Dollarway Road, said Thursday. “A church is not a building. People are the church, and Valley Church is more alive than ever.”
The 36-year-old Rothacher — a Florida native who served two years at CBC before leaving for Vilonia in May 2012 — is a Bible-based, matter-of-fact type who had never before experienced having to deal with a tornado’s destruction and disruption. He and his Southern Baptist congregants trust that God has a purpose for everything, and they’re looking forward to discovering where God will deliver them after this storm.
“God is the Father of all, and He’s ultimately in control of everything,” Rothacher said, adding that he doesn’t believe the tornado was God’s “wrath or judgment” on Vilonia.
“God is always working for our good. I don’t think we were here just for this tornado,” Rothacher said. “Tragedies can set the stage for tremendous triumphs. The people of Valley Church are excited to see what triumphs He has in store for us.”
Meanwhile, the young minister — who “launched” the recently organized church on March 31, 2013 — said he and Valley’s roughly 80 members are “mourning with those who mourn, grieving with those who grieve and loving those in need” as the community seeks to rebound from the terrible twister, which resulted in eight deaths in Vilonia as well as staggering financial losses yet to be fully calculated.
“We serve the people of Vilonia,” Rothacher said. “The tornado hasn’t stopped our people from serving. I’m proud of our people. They’re all helping others. We love people in Jesus’ name.”
Rothacher and his family — wife Julie, 29, daughters Maggie (6), Izzy (4) and Ellie (4 months), and 3-year-old son Jamin — were in their home about a mile east of the tornado when it struck. They escaped injury and personal property damages, but that doesn’t mean the Rothachers didn’t experience fear and discomfort. As they huddled in a center room, uncertain of what might occur, they could hear the awful sounds of houses and other structures being shredded, automobiles being lifted and tossed about and trees being uprooted and twirled elsewhere. The debris slammed into whatever was in its path.
The Rothachers held tightly to one another and prayed.
With electrical and telephone service knocked out, it was a few hours before Rothacher learned that the church’s building was gone. The minister, however, stayed busy in the interim by seeking to help others who hadn’t been as fortunate as Rothacher and his family.
CBC Pastor Allen Elkins of White Hall learned of the fate of Valley’s meeting place through text messaging and social media. Although troubled by the storm’s devastation as reported on television, Elkins was relieved to find that the Rothachers were uninjured.
“It hurt my heart,” Elkins said of the storms that also produced fatalities in Mayflower, Paron and El Paso. “It scared me. I thought of Matt and said to myself, ‘That’s my friend who’s hurting.’”
Elkins said he and Rothacher didn’t work together long at CBC, but quickly developed a close relationship.
“We could be frank with one another,” Elkins said. “We could agree and we could disagree. I’ve hurt his feelings and he’s hurt mine, but we always love, respect and forgive. I guess you can say we have a good, quality friendship. It’s brotherly love.”
Elkins said he’s taken a special interest in Rothacher’s development as a minister, in part because it mirrors Elkins’.
Elkins and Rothacher haven’t seen one another since the tornado, but Elkins said that will soon change. When Rothacher gives the word, Elkins and others from CBC will caravan to Vilonia to provide whatever aid is needed.
“Matt is getting his folks together to see what is needed the most,” Elkins said. “We’re going to be getting some materials together to help Matt in his plans for Valley Church to have a worship service Sunday at their building site. Central Baptist Church loves Matt and his family and we also love the Valley Church family. We’re praying for them. Central and Valley are family in the body of Christ, and we’ll be by their side as long as it takes for them to recover. We’re dedicated to long-term support.”
Elkins said after he heard Rothacher’s testimony in a KATV-Channel 7 interview on Monday, he knew “God’s going to use him and Valley Church to spread God’s love in Vilonia and elsewhere.”
Rothacher, who believes many of his experiences at CBC helped in preparing him to “plant” his current church, said he wasn’t prepared for the encouragement and offers of assistance he’s received in the tornado’s aftermath.
“The outpouring of support for us has been tremendous, and I’m talking about everyone, not just Central Baptist,” said Rothacher, who noted his affection for his former church. “Everyone is praying for us and wanting to help, and the messages are coming from throughout Arkansas and beyond. It’s across denominational lines. It’s very humbling. It’s overwhelming. We can’t thank everyone enough.”
Commercial readers who wish to send messages of faith or financial gifts to Rothacher and his church can address them to Pastor Matt Rothacher, The Valley Church, P.O. Box 152, Vilonia, Ark. 72173.