Even as Hurricane Charley left widespread destruction around them, God's people gathered for Sunday services to count their blessings.

Outside Eastside Baptist Church in Punta Gorda, Fla., one of the hardest-hit areas, a spray-painted sign said, "Community service, 11 a.m. Come as you are." And people did. They began arriving about an hour early, according to the St. Petersburg Times, and as they stood in the church's parking lot, President Bush passed by in his motorcade. He rolled down the window, gave them a thumb's up and continued on his route to survey the damage.

Though the roof was torn on Eastside's education center and the power was out, the 50-foot steeple stood tall and the 30-year-old small brick sanctuary with stained-glass windows was unharmed. More than 40 worshipers gathered to share stories of devastation and thank God for sparing their lives, according to the Naples Daily News.

They sang songs like “How Great Thou Art” and “Amazing Grace,” with the words, "Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come; 'Twas grace that brought me safe thus far, and grace will lead me home," meaning more than before.

Some had no cash, no food and little more than their lives, but they found strength in seeing each other, the Daily News said.

"God doesn't tell us why things happen," Michael Mowry, pastor of Eastside, said. "And God doesn't give us the whys while we are going through it."

But Mowry shared lessons he had learned from his family's recent experience with a head-on collision and reminded the congregation, "Years later, you too will be able to use your experience to help other people who are broken," he said, according to the Daily News.

At the close of the 45-minute service, people thanked God for preserving the building so it could be used to help the community.

"We need to practice loving our neighbors as ourselves," Mowry prayed. "Now is the time we can minister to the folks who need us."

Aratha Jones expressed gratitude for the people who care about her in a time of need.

"When I see the governor and president and all these people from the power companies from all over the nation that came to help us, I am glad that I live in America," she told the Daily News.

Harbor Breeze Baptist Church in Punta Gorda was destroyed by Charley, so a handful of members gathered at a local park shelter Sunday morning, according to a report by WSTP-TV in Tampa. Footage of the service showed the pastor, Tom Moore, leading prayer with, "Our Father, we are grateful to you this morning for answered prayer."

A church member noted that the hurricane's devastation puts life in perspective and reminds people what's really important. And Moore reminded everyone they had not lost their church.

"The church is not about a building," he said. "It's about the presence of God in a group of believers."

At Southside Baptist Church in Orlando, a large tree was uprooted, a sign in front of the church was toppled and the power was out, but Pastor Jerry Glaze rigged a small flashlight to shed light on his pulpit Sunday morning, according to the Orlando Sentinel.

"I think this storm brought its own message," Glaze told the 20 people who had gathered for worship. "God is still on the throne. He controls all this stuff. ... We don't know why it all happens, but when you live by faith, you know that nothing is coincidence. Everything has a purpose. Sometimes God does things to get our attention."

At First Baptist Church in Lake Wales, Fla., about 20 of the church's 1,000 regular attendees gathered in the lobby to pray and sing songs accompanied by a guitar. The church's steeple was broken off, the power was out and rain had poured through where the roofs of two church buildings had been peeled back, but the people were giving thanks, according to The Lakeland Ledger.

"We thank you for bringing us here," Jeff McCormick, pastor of First Baptist, prayed. "We know all around our community today, people are digging out. We thank you for protecting us. Though we are shaken physically, we are not shaken spiritually."

McCormick spoke from the Book of Isaiah about trusting God in times of darkness, The Ledger reported.

"If you live long enough, you're going to have those times of darkness," he said. "... They're times of darkness that God Himself puts you in because He wants to find out how committed you are. This is a good time in this community to find out what that means. ... When it's dark in your life, trust Him. When it's dark in your life, lean on Him."

Chuck Coleman was a visitor to First Baptist in the wake of Charley, The Ledger said. Coleman had put on a dark suit and tie and went walking through the community, searching for a place to worship on Sunday morning. The newspaper noted that Coleman expressed the kind of trust McCormick urged in his sermon.

"I feel like the whole thing is in God's hands," McCormick said. "There are several verses in the Bible where it says God stirs the wind with His finger. Good and bad, God's in control."

www.bpnews.net

Photo Credit: Hurricane Charley struck the campus of Orlando's First Baptist Church on Aug. 13. Gusts reaching 145 mph caused extensive damage to the two-story Faith Building, which houses meeting rooms and a kitchen. The damage did not keep members from gathering for worship. Photo by James A. Smith Sr./Florida Baptist Witness