The sound of accordions and brass performing waltzes and polkas rang out from the speakers as smiling clerks and customers happily exchanged midday greetings.
After one step into the jovial atmosphere of the Czech Stop, home to West, Texas’ famous kolaches, one would not have suspected that six short months earlier, this little town, less than an hour’s drive from UMHB, was rocked by a devastating explosion that claimed 14 lives, nine of whom were first responders.
Beneath the area’s relaxed, tranquil surface, dramatic memories of chaos and tragedy can be conjured up at a moment’s notice.
“Initially I thought it was an earthquake,” Associate Pastor of St. Mary’s Church of the Assumption, Father Boniface Onjefu, said of the April 18 event. “I had just finished the 6:30 p.m. mass, and I came to the rectory when I heard a loud explosion.”
The priest recalled walking out to the street to witness town residents streaming out of their houses to see what had happened.
He said, “I saw people running around helter-skelter everywhere, saying the fertilizer plant exploded. While I was standing in front of the church, I watched the dark smoke head up into the sky…. We never had peace for three days.”
Because West’s population is one deeply rooted in faith, many of the Czech-Americans being Catholic, the sanctuary became a safe haven of constancy in the midst of a tempest.
“If you live in West, you will know that the church is the center of activity….,” Onjefu said. “The church is the centerpiece, so when the explosion happened, they all came here. People were asked not to go back home, so we kept them at the church to take refuge.”
He said the parish was able to provide spiritual, emotional and monetary support to community members, who have expressed much gratitude.
The town is a tight-knit one, and the clergy are no exception. Catholics and Protestants alike belong to the West Area Ministers Alliance. Because St. Mary’s was the largest unaffected church structure
deemed safe at the time, all the congregations met there for a candlelight vigil and prayer service the Friday after the Wednesday explosion.
The community of faith has played an active role in the revitalization effort. First Baptist Church of West continues to meet practical needs.
Pastor John Crowder, a childhood friend of university President Dr. Randy O’Rear, said he and his family were on their way back home from his daughter’s track meet in College Station when he received a phone call from one of the church elders about the explosion. Naturally, he inquired about his home and dog, but the deacon warned everything may have been lost.
“That was the first time I realized how bad it was, when he said ‘you may not have a house to get to, you know.’ “
The house was lost, but the dog was spared. By the time the Crowders arrived in West, the emergency responders and law enforcement had moved from the high school’s football field to the community center.
When the pastor entered the scene, he said, “I walked around in a daze, just praying with whoever I could find.”
In the days following the initial chaos, Texans and Americans at large generously sent financial contributions.
“We received donations from all over the state, all over the nation to a degree.… One of the benefits of being a church is we don’t have all the red tape, regulations and all the mess associated with the secular funds. The delays are just amazing,” Crowder said.
Deacons were assigned to oversee the funds and help distribute them to people who needed help.
Like St. Mary’s, First Baptist opened its doors to meet spiritual and practical needs. Every morning beginning at 8:00, people were allowed inside to pray. The church also provided showers and meals and helped launder clothes.
However, before the church could become a place of safety, it had to be inspected, leading to a temporary unorthodox meeting arrangement.
When members heard that part of town had not been cleared for re-entry and began asking about Sunday’s service, Crowder said, “We’re going to have church. I just don’t know where, and I don’t know how, but we’re going to have church.”
Local congregations and businesses contributed and transformed a field into a church under the sky.
“It was a major positive memory for the people that were there,” Crowder said.
Maybe it’s the resilient Texas spirit or the strong network of support, but the people of West have a generally positive outlook.
Back at the Czech Stop, manager Beverly Nunley said with a big smile, “Everyone’s doing fine. The kids are back in school. Things are being rebuilt. People are starting to do well again.”
Pastor Crowder agrees. He said, “God is bigger than all of these problems…. God is good, and West is blessed.”