Tornado rips steeple off Pennsylvania church during worship service

FINLEYVILLE, Pennsylvania (RNS) — At first, the Rev. Ken Barner thought it was the sound system.

Tucked in a back room just behind the sanctuary of Crossroads Ministries, Barner was preparing to enter the stage for the evening service on Saturday (May 11), when he heard what sounded like a freight train. Then the lights flickered and Barner realized the noise was coming from outside.

“I’m thinking, we’re gonna lose this building,” said Barner in an interview on the steps of the church Monday morning.

His wife Rhonda was singing “The God Who Stays,” a contemporary Christian hit by Matthew West, when Barner and other church leaders snapped into action, ushering the nearly 100 congregants down the stairs to the basement. Luke McClain, pastor of ministry development, was hit with shards of glass as two sanctuary windows blew out, but no one was seriously injured.

A tornado pulled the roof off a section of Crossroads Ministries Church in Finleyville, Penn., on Saturday evening, May 11, 2024. (Photo courtesy Crossroads Ministries)

It wasn’t until the group emerged from the basement roughly 30 minutes later that they discovered a tornado had blown off their church’s steeple, flinging it into the parking lot where it had smashed several cars.

Located just off a main road in Finleyville, a suburb of Pittsburgh, Crossroads Ministries is a nondenominational Protestant church that meets in a brick building built in 1972. It typically draws between 500-600 people across its three weekend services, according to the pastors. On Saturday, infants, 90-somethings and a few first-time visitors were all part of the roughly 100 people in attendance.

“It’s a true cross-section of Pittsburgh,” said Barner, who has been on staff since 1990 and became senior pastor in 2015. “We’re Yinzers. It’s Steeler country here.”

The pastor said there was no warning that the church was in the path of a tornado — while he was aware of storms predicted to land farther north, in Finleyville, sports games, birthday parties and church events went on as usual, Barner said, until the storm blew through.

“The job of the pastor is to lead, feed, guide and protect his congregation. And at times, we have to do that physically,” said Barner. “All I could think about was, let’s get everybody to safety.”

Hunkered in the basement hallway, Barner led the congregants in prayer and quoted Psalm 46 as they waited for the storm to pass. “The Lord is our refuge and strength, a very present help in times of trouble,” he recounted to RNS.

Soon, personnel from emergency medical services and the local fire department were on the scene. Fearing that the entire building would collapse, they led congregants into the adjacent building, which holds the school’s gymnasium, to assess potential injuries. Aside from minor bruises and cuts, everyone was unscathed.

Storm damage from broken windows in the sanctuary of Crossroads Ministries, Monday, May 13, 2024, in Finleyville, Penn. (RNS photo/Kathryn Post)

Storm damage from broken windows in the sanctuary of Crossroads Ministries Church, Monday, May 13, 2024, in Finleyville, Penn. (RNS photo/Kathryn Post)

The National Weather Service told local news station Action News 4 that the tornado had estimated peak wind speeds of 118 miles per hour, suggesting it could have been an EF2. The damage is extensive — roughly a dozen nearby homes were severely impacted, though no major injuries have yet been linked to the storm. At the church, several windows were shattered, and as of Monday morning, debris, including the church steeple, still littered the church driveway and parking lot. The entire roof is missing from the part of the building that houses church offices, classrooms and bathrooms. 

Construction crews are already onsite, and, while the main church building is unusable, the congregation plans to meet in person, likely in their gymnasium. In the meantime, members from the community are stopping by, pitching in for cleanup and offering to pray over the building.

McClain told RNS he didn’t think it was a coincidence that the church is in the middle of a sermon series about God’s promises. While reading about those promises is one thing, he said, seeing them firsthand is another.

“This could have been potentially catastrophic,” said McClain. “The roof was ripped off, but the sanctuary where we were was relatively untouched … God had his hand on us.”

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