NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The explosion that ripped through a historic part of downtown Nashville and the peace of Christmas morning reminded the Rev. Frank Lewis of an old hymn: “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day.”
First written as a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, the carol tells the story of hearing the bells toll during the U.S. Civil War and finding hope amid despair: Then pealed the bells more loud and deep/God is not dead, nor doth he sleep/The wrong shall fail, the right prevail/With peace on earth, good will to men.
A church member texted Lewis about the explosion, and the parallels between the two Christmases immediately sprang to mind.
Although it isn’t a war, the wreckage on Second Avenue is widespread. Three people were injured and 41 buildings were damaged when the RV parked near an AT&T facility blew up early Friday. Its blast was heard and felt for miles.
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“Even though there’s the sound of war, the bells of Christmas remind us of God’s peace, of God’s hope in spite of the very worst that man can do,” said Lewis, who leads Nashville First Baptist Church.
Located just blocks from the blast site, the church is just one of the houses of worship that have long called the core of the city home. Religious leaders like Lewis are now having to process the shocking events that unfolded in their church’s urban neighborhood and figure out how to respond to the latest tragedy to hit Nashville this year.
Nashville First Baptist’s building escaped damage, Lewis said, but Saturday evening church leadership was still trying to check in with all of their members who live downtown, a task made difficult by the widespread AT&T outages that began several hours after the blast.
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As he prepared his Sunday sermon, Lewis decided to provide a scriptural response to the questions spurred by the explosion authorities say was a deliberate act.
While church members watched the virtual service online, the Southern Baptist pastor pointed to the message Jesus gave his disciples in the Gospel of Matthew: “I am with you always.” It is the part of scripture Lewis turned to after word of the explosion reached him.
“And I heard the bells on Christmas morning and I was reminded that the wrong will fail and the right will prevail, that there is a God and he is on his throne and his strength is sufficient and his promise is true and he’s with us,” Lewis said in his sermon.
He believes God was present on Christmas morning.
As he preached, Lewis asked if anyone doubted that God was working in the lives of the first Nashville police officers on the scene. They were responding to a report of shots fired and arrived before the explosion to discover the suspicious vehicle. A recorded warning and 15-minute countdown was heard coming from the RV, giving people time to evacuate the area.
“Six brave police officers who ran toward danger, not away from it and were able save untold lives because of their heroic deeds,” Lewis said.
He is not alone. Nashville officer James Wells, one of the first on the scene, also thinks divine intervention took place on Christmas Day. In a Sunday news conference, he recounted how he believes God told him to turn around and go check on another officer. Wells did and moments later the RV exploded behind him.
The Rev. Stephen Handy, who leads McKendree United Methodist Church in downtown Nashville, also believes God played a role.
“I contend that there’s God’s intervention when we least expect it,” Handy said. “We can rebuild this city, but we cannot rebuild lives.”
McKendree’s church building is unscathed by the explosion and all church members who live downtown are accounted for, too, Handy said.
“We need each other and we belong to each other so let’s just love each other,” Handy said.
Follow Holly Meyer on Twitter @HollyAMeyer.