Monday, March 10, 1997
Falmouth's flood-weary
look to Lord for answers


BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

FALMOUTH, Ky. - And on the eighth day, they prayed.

Debra Conrad came to church Sunday to have a talk with God.

She wanted to tell him what the flood of '97 did to her hometown.

The 17-year-old found a place in the last pew of the Wesleyan Church. Pressing her hands together, she squeezed her eyes shut and rested her forehead on the pew in front of her.

As the Rev. Kenneth Gates preached and sang, Debra remembered the flood's victims. People she knew died. Friends lost their homes and everything inside. The river turned their houses and their lives into empty shells.

One week and a day after a flood washed the life out of Falmouth, the Rev. Mr. Gates led an emotional, ecumenical service at his Wesleyan Church.

Just opened Jan. 26, the new church stands on high ground. It was spared the ravages of the flood's water and the river's mud.

Attendance for the service was spotty. In the town below, most of Falmouth was at work. Thousands were digging out, hosing down, racing to beat the oncoming rain. All in the service of bringing Falmouth back from the dead.

At church, people sat shoulder-to-shoulder, patting hands and wiping tears. Every pew was overcome with fear, grief.

And hope.

Strange land

Hope radiated from the Rev. Mr. Gates' sermon and his singing. His message was ''Singing the Lord's Song in a Strange Land.'' His song, ''His Eye Is On the Sparrow.''

''This morning we are dwelling in a strange land,'' he said. His voice, clear and true, flowed like a peaceful river over the congregation.

''People have said they've lived here all their lives and never seen Falmouth look like this.''

Heads nodded.

Someone murmured, ''Amen.''

Maggie Ice dabbed her eyes with a Klee nex. She was crying for her devastated city, grieving for lost loved ones. ''Falmouth,'' she would say after church, ''is my family.''

Karen Schlueter hugged her 10-year-old daughter, Megan. They were separated during the flood. Karen and her husband went to see George Strait's concert in Cincinnati. Megan stayed in Falmouth with her grandmother.

The flood came. Roads were washed out. All lines of communication were down. For three days, Karen didn't know if Megan was alive or dead.

No wonder they had their arms around each other in church.

Song of hope

Near the end of his sermon, the Rev. Mr. Gates asked, ''What does the Lord's song sound like?''

Answering his own question, he lifted his head and started singing all by himself.

The Rev. Mr. Gates is a large man. Full face. Barrel-chested. Big heart. Huge voice.

He filled the church with the tune to these words:

His eye is on the sparrow. And I know He watches me.

Before singing the next line, he paused. Looking into the eyes of the congregation, he shook his head and said:

''Now here's the hardest part.''

Gripping the pulpit, he sang:

I sing because I'm happy.

His voice broke. His face reddened.

Then, just like Debra Conrad in the last pew, he struck up a conversation with God. He asked the Lord, if - in this time of so much sorrow - it was OK to sing, if anyone in this town would ever be happy again.

He listened and nodded silently. God must have given him the go-ahead. Because, he started singing once again, with even more feeling:

I sing because I'm happy.

Inside the church, men, with mud on their boots and the flood on their minds, wept.

Mothers let their tears fall as they held their babies.

Outside, minutes later, it started raining.

Cliff Radel's column appears in The Enquirer on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Available to speak to groups. Tips and comments most welcome. Call 768-8379 or fax at 768-8340.