The emotional candlelight vigil was hosted by the family of Leadmine Valley Road storm victim Evelyn Johnson, but its outreach extended to the community and the families of all nine who died on the turbulent day and night that reshaped a landscape and redirected lives forever.
The Rev. Wesley Choplin, a Bradley County native who offered words of comfort at Johnson’s funeral, did so again Friday during the early evening ceremony.
“I know we have heavy hearts tonight and that we have thought of our lost loved ones many times during the past year,” Choplin told the subdued assembly. “I know this is a difficult time for each of you, but we pray this brings healing and comfort to everyone who lost a loved one in the storms of last year.”
Using an analogy taken from the heavens, Choplin quoted from a recently published Eskimo saying that read, “Perhaps they are not stars you see in the sky, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our loved ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know that they are happy.”
Choplin, who is related to the Johnson family through marriage and who knew her well, urged the group of candle bearers to remember their loved ones in life.
“The next time we look into the sky, let’s notice those stars that are coming out because that could be a sign to each of us that our loved ones are there watching down upon us with a smile upon their face,” the 1973 Bradley Central High School graduate offered.
Quoting from the books of Psalm and John, Choplin encouraged those assembled beneath the stars to warm their hearts and to strengthen their resolve by seeking a spiritual direction in a life, and times, filled with challenge.
“We have to depend upon God who offers us peace in saying, ‘Let not your heart be troubled,’” he cited.
Amid the soft cries and silent prayers of the group, Choplin said the healing process is gradual.
“The healing of our hearts began months ago,” he stressed. “The hurt and the pain are reminders of the love we had for those who were taken from us.”
Choplin pointed out those who believe will be delivered closure from their loss and such finality will lessen the hurt and soften the pain.
“I believe this ceremony will bring a smile to our departed loved ones,” he said. “And as we dedicate this time in their honor, we will know we have brought closure to our own hearts.”
Choplin’s message reached beyond the spiritual as he recalled the frightening 12 hours that unleashed five tornadoes — one of them an EF-4 — upon a weary community whose homes and families were assaulted by an unprecedented outbreak of severe weather. He credited the work of emergency responders, relief organizations, volunteers and neighbors who rushed to the aid of the fallen — even before the dawn of a new day.
“We want to thank each relief agency, operations, churches, all faith-based organizations and willing volunteers who worked together to assure the recovery by all who were impacted,” Choplin stated. He pointed to the courage of the Evelyn Johnson family — daughter Rhonda Davenport, husband Wayne Johnson and niece Brandi Jones — who made the commitment to host the candlelight vigil, not only on behalf of their own family, but for all impacted Bradley County households and the full community. He acknowledged the kindness of Waterville Community Elementary School Principal Charlene Cofer for allowing the nighttime ceremony at the Dalton Pike facility.
The Waterville community was selected by the Johnson family because it served as an epicenter for much of the storm destruction, and death, that befell Bradley County on the day and night of tragedy.
Choplin urged others to join the Johnson family in understanding that attending the candlelight vigil, “... might help you to feel as they feel, that if you have lost a loved one during the past year that you also will be able to light this candle tonight and leave it here as a closure to that tragic day.”
Of that day of unbridled tragedy, Choplin said it unleashed “... unbelievable destruction and unprecedented heartbreak among us. Shortly after, we were given the sad news that the city and county had lost nine people due to the tornadoes. News traveled fast that a certain mother, a sister, an aunt, a father, a brother, an uncle, a son ... a daughter had been taken from us.”
He added, “Each of has been down a long road of healing this past year. I know it has been very difficult at times as we think about our loved ones who were so close to us ... those who we saw each day or who we talked to daily on the telephone.”
At the close of his message, Choplin led in prayer, and was followed by the playing of “Amazing Grace” by trumpeter Jonathan Tyndall, a cousin to Davenport. During the melancholy rendition, Choplin read off the names of all nine storm victims, and preceded each with “In Honor Of.”
Following the trumpeter’s salute, the crowd sang the opening verse from the spiritual. Choplin then led those assembled in raising his candle to the darkening sky and offered, “May we have peace in our hearts and closure of healing that only God Himself can give us ... for we pray this. Amen.”
Family members, friends and neighbors then slowly, but with uplifted hearts, softly snuffed each candle, leaving them in a semi-circle on the grass in front of a small table wrapped in green that held the photographs of Evelyn Johnson, her family, an angel figurine and a glass-enclosed flame used to light the candles of those gathered.
Tearful loved ones embraced as the night’s darkness was pierced by the light from hundreds of stars above, any nine of which could have been shining a special warmth on those below.
As candlelight keepers made their way to a crowded parking lot, most whispered in their hearts the speaker’s final plea from the evening of reflection, “Give us peace. Give us strength. Give us comfort in the days ahead.”
In Memory: Eva Catlett, Tommy Evans, Chase Glasgow, Tami Glasgow, Evelyn Johnson, Robert King, Lisa Pack, Kandice Satterfield and Rhonda Smith.