But by the end of the pastor’s words, Spencer was walking down the aisle. His parents were stunned. Spencer had been going to church for a while, they said, but he hadn’t so much as hinted that he wanted to publicly profess his faith. As he knelt at the front of the church, Spencer’s parents went to him.
His mother Deborah hugged him and cried. Ralph put his arms around his son’s neck.
“I was overjoyed,” Deborah said recently. “It was a miracle.”
Deborah still cries when she thinks about it. Ralph still grins – one of those big, across-the-face smiles – when he remembers.
“It was one of the greatest moments of my life,” he said. “I was happier the day Spence was saved than I was the day he was born.”
‘We thought the church would be safer’
A year has passed since the day Spencer died. He was 33 years old when on April 27 a tornado tore through northern Calhoun County, flattening the church building where he had taken refuge.
Then, Spencer lived with his fiancée, Sera Winters, in a mobile home in Wellington.
“We thought the church would be safer than the trailer,” Sera said.
As the storm drew closer, Spencer, Sera and her 2-year-old son headed to the old Mamre Baptist Church. The congregation recently had paid for a new building just down the road, but the old one was brick, sturdy and had a basement.
On their way, Spencer called his parents. Ralph, Deborah and their younger son, Chadwick, were at home in Alexandria. Spencer urged them to join him.
No, we’ll be fine here, Ralph said.
After the storm passed, Ralph tried to drive to the church.
He couldn’t. Trees and power-lines and what used to be houses blocked all of the roads. He drove as far as he could down U.S. 431 and parked.
He climbed through branches, over wet piles of rubble. He saw cars at the tops of trees, driveways that led to nothing.
He got to the old church – or the bricks and wood and cinderblocks where the church was supposed to be – and eventually saw Scott Darnell, another member of Mamre Baptist.
“Scott, where’s Spence?” Ralph cried.
“Spence is dead.”
‘We just keep on living’
There were the weak moments after Spencer died – the disbelief, the tears, the pain.
But Ralph said he asked God for peace. Deborah asked Him for strength.
And “God blessed us,” Ralph said. He gave them what they prayed for. They got through the first few days after the tornado --- got through the funeral.
Now, Ralph and Deborah try to live as they always have.
They go to church on Wednesday evenings and Sunday mornings. They go to work each day – Ralph to the Anniston Police Department where he supervises jail inmates and Deborah to a job at AT&T in Birmingham.
Ralph still gets together with his band mates; they play bluegrass gospel music just as they always have: In cow fields and churches, at birthday parties and hospice centers.
Deborah still cooks homemade dinners for her younger son, has Spencer’s daughter Destiny to their home for weekend sleepovers.
“We just keep on living,” Ralph said. “We still get up, go to work, pay the bills – but we know it’s just a waiting period and we will be with Spencer again in heaven.”
'In heaven now'
That’s what Sera tells her son when he asks her where Spencer is. Brayden is 3 years old now and was with Spencer and Sera at the church on April 27.
Amazingly, Brayden escaped the fallen walls and building rubble unscathed. Sera wasn’t as fortunate.
It’s hard for the 24-year-old to talk about the tornado, the church walls that smashed her pelvis and left hip. The night her fiancé died.
She cries as she remembers.
Spencer helping her parents and grandparents into the church, slamming the doors shut, the wind tearing them open.
“He pushed me down and then we were hit,” Sera said. “It was over in 30 seconds.”
Sera didn’t lose consciousness. But it took her a minute to realize she was lying on top of her grandmother. And a wall was on top of her.
She saw Spencer lying next to her. She started to scream for him to help her.
“I begged Spencer: ‘Please get up and get this wall off of me,’” Sera remembered. “He wouldn’t get up.”
It didn’t dawn on her that Spencer was dead until a few minutes later when Sera’s father found them.
He told her: “Spencer is in heaven now.”
Still, Sera didn’t believe. She didn’t cry. She stayed pinned beneath a wall next to Spencer’s body for 45 minutes before the emergency workers arrived. She talked to Spencer, reminded him of all the things they were going to do together – go fishing, raise Brayden and Destiny, get married.
Finally, a female EMS technician appeared beside Spencer’s body, Sera remembered.
“This one’s dead,” the woman said to another emergency worker.
Those three words. Those three unemotional words. Sera felt the weight of them like she felt the wall on top of her broken body.
“I started screaming,” Sera said. “And didn’t stop.”
The redneck who loved to fish
Ralph has an easier time remembering his son. He grins as he describes Spencer. He was a redneck. He loved to fish. He loved four-wheelers and trucks. Working with his hands.
“He was a hardworking, trying-to-make-ends-meet kind of guy,” Ralph said. “He was not a couch potato or a gamer.”
As a child, Spencer participated in Cub Scouts, played outside and got “slightly above average” grades, his parents remember. He got along with his younger brother, was stubborn like his father and went to his mother whenever he had a problem.
Deborah recalls one day when they had a Scouts meeting at the house. Spencer was worried, she said, because Deborah liked to smoke cigarettes inside.
“‘Momma!’” Deborah remembered Spencer exclaiming, “‘Don’t smoke in front of people!’”
As a teenager, Spencer got frustrated with his mom, because she kept him close.
She didn’t let him go out late with his friends. She made him keep in touch with her.
When he graduated, Spencer never considered college, “because he loved construction,” Ralph said.
He went into the construction business right after high school and stayed in it. When Spencer started attending Mamre Baptist Church a few years ago, he was the person who built the sets for the holiday plays.
He loved his church, Sera said.
“He’d feel bad if we missed a service,” she said. “He was real passionate about it. He was one of the reasons I got rededicated.”
‘I can’t talk about it’
They miss Spencer, they feel his absence.
Sometimes Ralph will see a man with Spencer’s stocky build and jet black hair. He’ll look twice, reminding himself it can’t be his son.
He’ll see a silver truck on the highway or parked at the gas station. Spencer’s, he thinks. Then he remembers that he drives his son’s old pickup.
Deborah forgets she can’t pick up the phone and call Spencer. She reminds herself she has to be strong. Even when she doesn’t want to. Even when she feels weak.
Destiny, Spencer’s 13-year-old daughter, can’t believe her dad won’t take her fishing again in Lincoln or at the Fraternal Order of Police lodge in Weaver. She forgets he won’t be there to watch her sing with Ralph’s band or in the Alexandria High School choir.
“I feel like it didn’t really happen,” Destiny said on a Wednesday night at the recently rebuilt Mamre Baptist Church. She was playing a game on her iPhone, but put it down when a reporter asked her about the tornado.
Her eyes got big. Ralph was sitting beside her and put a protective hand on his granddaughter’s back.
Destiny tried to talk. When she opened her mouth, she began to cry instead.
“I can’t talk about it,” she said, putting her face in her hands.
‘Something hit him’
Spencer’s story, in a way, is Mamre Baptist Church’s story.
He didn’t grow up going to church. Only Ralph attended Sunday services on a regular basis. But 10 years ago a neighbor of Ralph and Deborah invited them to Mamre Baptist. They went, and Spencer came, too. They immediately clicked with other congregation members, Ralph said. They liked the unassuming service, the pastor’s sermon.
It changed so much for them. For Spencer.
Ralph remembers driving home from the first service at Mamre Baptist. Deborah turned to him.
“Can we go back?” she asked him.
Sera met Spencer at church. Throughout their two-year relationship, she and Spencer spoke often about Christianity, how life at Mamre Baptist changed him. Spencer used to have trouble with drinking, Sera said. He and his former girlfriend, Destiny’s mother, had broken up after Destiny was born. He wasn’t around much when his daughter was young.
When he started going to church, all of that changed.
“Something hit him,” Sera said.
One year in heaven
When the tornado hit, it destroyed both the new and old church buildings. It’s taken the congregation 10 months and $200,000 in insurance money to rebuild. The Motes family, Sera and Brayden, and the 60-odd other Mamre Baptist members spent most of this year attending services in the gymnasium of another church further down U.S. 431.
In February, they were finally able to move back into their own building, between the twisted trees and piles of rubble that still mark so clearly the devastation of last April.
But these people are not resentful. On a Wednesday night earlier this month, their joyousness was contagious. They entered their new church with smiles and laughter, hugs and chatter.
Adults pat each other on the shoulder and stand close when they talk. Children race through the church rooms, chasing each other, giggling, playing games.
Spencer was a big part of Mamre Baptist, church members say, and he still is.
“He was a good friend,” church member Scott Darnell said. “He enjoyed life; he was always laughing.”
In that same joyful spirit, the Mamre Baptist congregation will have a celebration on Friday, the one-year anniversary of the storms.
They will go to the spot where their old church once stood, where Spencer died.
“We’re going to celebrate his first year in heaven,” Ralph said.
Contact Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.