The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

May 12, 2012

Congregations find themselves stronger after storm

By Wally Kennedy
wkennedy@joplinglobe.com

— John Myers will forever remember the makeshift memorial on the parking lot of Joplin Full Gospel Church.

Someone attached a battered flag from the church to a chair. On the chair’s seat, a hymnal had been opened to “Amazing Grace.’’

Except for the concrete foundation, it was about all that remained of the church after May 22.

“From time to time I would go by and see people standing there looking at it. They would be holding each other,’’ said Myers, pastor of the church, as he relived the tearful memory. “I know it helped people. You just know it did.’’

The church, across from Dillons grocery store, had 24 people inside when the tornado hit. Four members of the congregation were killed inside. One died outside. Myers was under rubble for 30 minutes before being pulled out.

Said Myers: “There were four bodies on the parking lot. This woman comes up to me. Pointing to them, she said: ‘You did your job. They all were prepared for where they’re at. You did a good job.’’’

The comforting words were from a woman who had lost her only daughter.

Myers struggles as he tells those stories and recalls the daunting challenges of the past year, challenges that included keeping his church family together, finding a new location and rebuilding, reaching out to those who lost the most, and helping his people reaffirm their faith in the face of age-old questions.

They are the same challenges faced by 26 other churches that were destroyed or damaged that day.

Myers speaks proudly of the way that fathers in his congregation stepped up to serve as father figures for the children who lost their own fathers that day. He said he has been inspired by those who have overcome life-changing injuries.

What might seem like an overwhelming test of faith has not been that at all, he said. There have been times when the question has been asked: How could God let May 22 happen?

“They realize it is a storm and that we happened to be in the wrong place. They are not mad at God,’’ he said. “It has made us stronger. We know we need each other.’’

‘Where was God?’

That question will be the focus of today’s message at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, said Aaron Brown, religious director.

“Why did God allow this to happen? Where was God?’’ he asked. “This is not the first time we have talked about this since the tornado. What I say is that you need to go to The Book. What did Jesus promise?

“He never promised we would not have storms. He never promised he would protect us. He never said that. He said he would be with us in this life because this life on the other side of eternity is chaotic.’’

No more chaotic than on May 22.

The tornado smashed through St. Paul’s sanctuary, but it spared the children’s center a few yards away. It would become a triage center to serve the injured who sought refuge there after the tornado. Doctors and nurses appeared from nowhere to perform surgeries and set bones.

The congregation returned to the church in October, holding services in St. Paul’s gymnasium. A new lobby has been built and a new sanctuary is under construction. The sanctuary, which will have a balcony with reinforced walls under it to serve as a shelter, will be completed by September.

No one died at the church that day, but six members of the congregation were lost to the storm. About 15 families have since moved away.

There have been times when Brown has felt the stress of rebuilding his church, but it has been tempered by the support he has received from his congregation and the power of prayer, he said.

“This building is a tool. We hope it will become a tool to help us do what we do better,’’ he said. “I know we’ll all be happy when we get this tool back in our toolbox. It’s been a huge endeavor and there have been times when I’ve felt exhausted.

“But then I think about the prayers I have felt from people all over the country and how amazing that has been.’’

Book of Job

Charlie Burnett, pastor of Harmony Heights Baptist Church, is blind, but he sure likes what he’s hearing with his ears. It’s the sound of circular saws and hammers, and men at work smoothing concrete.

He and a church trustee, Mike Tatum, are monitoring the rebirth of their church, which was destroyed by the tornado. There were 53 people in the church when it was hit. Three died. Forty were injured.

“We were watching the storm reports that afternoon. Our service starts at 5 p.m. About 5:35 p.m., the tornado sirens went off. We went to our safe areas — the rooms with concrete-block walls. Everyone had reached an area where they thought they were safe, and then the church was gone,’’ said Burnett.

“We have mourned those whom we lost. They were our friends and we will miss them. But they are in a much better place. We believe they are with Christ at this point. We can rejoice in that aspect,’’ he said.

“What I told our people is that the devil is still the prince of this earth at this point and to look to the Book of Job for guidance. God let a windstorm kill all 10 of Job’s children. Like Job, we will have acts of nature that test us.

“I do not think God pointed his finger at Joplin that day and said you are a bunch of dirty sinners and need to straighten up. I think God protected a lot of people in Joplin that day. We lost 161 people. There should have been a thousand people who died. He protected his children,’’ Burnett said. “God cannot be blamed for this.’’

Said Tatum: “If it weren’t for God’s grace, a thousand lives would have been lost. There were 53 people here. We lost three. It could have been the other way around. We could have had 50 people who lost their lives. God is not through with this church or these people.

“I think all of the people who survived the storm — in closets and bathtubs — I think they are miracles.’’

Tatum said some members of the church have wrestled with survivor’s guilt.

“But this has pulled us together. We have a common thread to hold on to. It’s that feeling you are wanted and you are needed. There were those days when we grounded each other. We all had a day like that,’’ he said.

Burnett brought a critical-care counselor to the church because he was concerned about the well-being of his congregation and how they would cope.

“It was a critical-stress debriefing in which he spoke to the whole congregation and counseled individually. I think it helped them adjust. The internal spiritual fiber of our people is very strong now,’’ he said.

The new church will be completed in December. It will have a safe room and a taller steeple.

“It’s been a year now almost. There’s a good light at the end of the tunnel so to speak. Our building is going up now. It’s a new day for our church,’’ said Burnett. “You don’t give in and you don’t give up.

“And, you must remember that the church is not the building. When you grasp that, you are so much stronger.’’

A new day

Myers’ church, the Joplin Full Gospel, has relocated to a new site at 26th Street and Indiana Avenue. The Faith Assembly of God, which had been there, has relocated from that site to East 32nd Street near the Flying J truck stop.

Joplin Full Gospel had to move because it was too close to the railroad tracks at 20th Street and Michigan Avenue. The city is planning to create either an underpass or overpass there in the future. Myers said it was best to move once — not twice.

“It has not been easy to get to this point, but we have held together.’’

The pulpit, a communion table and two benches from the old church survived. They have found a new home in the sanctuary. The church has built a FEMA-approved safe room in one of its classrooms. The only clue that the classroom is different from the others is the solid-steel door. It has three dead bolts.

“I hope we never try it out,’’ said Myers. “But you never know your day and hour.’’