No one in northeast Alabama will ever forget Palm Sunday 1994. When deadly tornadoes ripped through northern Calhoun County, killing nearly two dozen people, a spring Sunday dedicated to beginning the holiest week of the Christian year became instead a stormy day of pain and loss. And yet, as the Rev. Dale Clem's memoir "Winds of Fury, Circles of Grace" demonstrates, the terrifying storms could not blow away the faith and devotion that would testify in no uncertain terms to a love and spirit that transcends disaster and death.
As the Rev. Kelly Clem led Palm Sunday services, including a children's pageant in which their 4-year-old daughter Hannah took part, Dale Clem was hundreds of miles away, leading a youth group on a spring break service trip to Oklahoma. The first report Clem received was sketchy, a message received from a cell phone call. "There's been a tornado," he was told. "It hit your wife's church... Kelly is in the hospital, the girls are okay; you need to call home." In the time it took for him to find his wife - interminable time - fear grew. No one had news about Hannah. Finally he was able to speak to Kelly, who told him: "Hannah is dead."
It was the beginning of a long day, a long week - a long year - of tears and mourning. "Winds of Fury, Circles of Grace" chronicles that year with touching honesty, neither shying away from sorrow nor forgetting joy. Clem captures the grief of a small congregation in a small town, where relationships are strengthened both by proximity and faith. He recounts unpleasant moments, such as hurtful and hateful notes received from zealots equating Kelly's ministry and the priesthood of women to Sodom and Gomorrah. And he shares many happy memories of Hannah - "Have I ever told you that I love you?" he would ask Hannah and her younger sister Sarah, and Hannah would giggle, "Oh, Daddy, you tell me that all the time."
The spirit of Hannah Clem is ever-present, dancing through these pages as she did through her life on earth, helping her father tell his tale of loss and redemption. Clem intersperses the chronological account of that Holy Week in 1994 - a week in which the message of death and resurrection resonated among the Piedmont hills - with good basic advice on confronting and accepting grief and healing. He begins this task with a quote from T.S. Eliot: "I said to my soul, be still, and wait.../So the darkness shall be the light,/and the stillness the dancing." He speaks to everyone who has known the darkness of death - encouraging by example, unafraid to recount his moments of weakness and weeping and glad to witness to a faith in life and in Christ which ultimately led both Clems through the valleys and shadows of the first year to a place of new hope and understanding.
--reviewed by Kim Koster for The Anniston (AL) Star