MOORE — A group of children from a community torn asunder by a deadly twister brought Oklahomans to their feet Sunday with a simple, heartfelt rendition of “Jesus Loves Me” at a memorial service for tornado victims.
Teacher Waynel Mayes, who said she and her students sang the beloved hymn as a tornado bore down on their Briarwood Elementary School classroom, led a group of Moore School District students as they sung in front of a crowd of about 2,000 at First Baptist Church of Moore, 301 NE 27.
The Briarwood group received a standing ovation as they entered the sanctuary and as they departed. Their song and Mayes' account of her class's experience provided perhaps the most emotional part of the service, with many attendees visibly touched and some wiping away tears.
“There are still many uncertainties to be faced in the days ahead but one thing I know is that Jesus loves me and all of us,” Mayes told the crowd.
The prominent metro church where the service was held is not far from tornado-ravaged neighborhoods. Gov. Mary Fallin called Oklahomans together for the event, entitled “Oklahoma Strong: Coming Together in Faith,” to honor the 26 victims of deadly twisters that pummeled several areas of the state May 19 and 20. Each individual attending the event was given a red rose and special T-shirts also were distributed.
Fallin quoted Scripture several times as she emphasized that Oklahomans can look to the Lord for comfort and strength.
“We may get knocked down but we will rise together as a state and for that we thank God,” Fallin said.
Several religious leaders shared words and prayers designed to comfort families grieving from the loss of their loved ones. Several communities, the speakers noted, must now find the strength from God to regroup and rebuild.
The Rev. Kevin Clarkson, senior pastor of First Baptist Church-Moore, gave the invocation, welcome and benediction, while Vered Harris, rabbi of Temple B'nai Israel in Oklahoma City, said a prayer.
“You are not the storm; rather after the storm, you are the still clear voice within us,” Harris said in the prayer she offered up to the Lord.
The Most Rev. Paul S. Coakley, archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Oklahoma City, shared a blessing and Oklahoma National Guard Maj. Gen. Myles Deering led the crowd in reciting “The Lord's Prayer.”
Several musicians brought solace through song, with contemporary Christian recording artist Dennis Jernigan, an Oklahoma native, singing a song about Oklahoma's resilience. Jernigan, of Muskogee, said he wrote the song called “We Will Rise” on Thursday, just a few days after the tornadoes, and recorded it on Friday.
The service, which lasted about an hour and a half, also featured an adult choir formed specifically for the service, the Oklahoma Strong Community Choir. The choir sang the timeless hymn “Amazing Grace.”
Country recording artist Kellie Coffey, a native of Moore, sang a stirring rendition of “Walk On.” The Ambassadors Concert Choir, as well as Janet Inman and the Oklahoma City University Orchestra, also performed at the service.
Several attendees said they were moved by the songs and words of faith at the event.
“It was very touching,” volunteer Ixchelt Estrada said.
Karla McCall said she decided to attend the service to support members of her family whose Moore home — less than a mile and a half from her own — was destroyed by the recent tornado.
“The service was beautiful, awesome,” she said. “The praying and the singing and just letting us know that everything is going to be all right, that's what I enjoyed.”
The south Oklahoma City woman said she especially enjoyed Jernigan's song.
After the service, Jernigan said the song that seemed to capture the hearts of many in the crowd, is available for mp3 download on his website www.dennisjernigan.com.
“I was overwhelmed,” he said when asked how he felt singing the song to tornado victims and other Oklahomans on Sunday.
“It made me feel I was one with my people.”