JOPLIN, Mo. —
As members of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church filed out of the 10 a.m. service Sunday, the familiar strains of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” started up from the musicians on the stage.
But the lyrics had been modified to welcome church-goers to their “sweet home St. Paul’s,” which was host for Sunday morning services in a brand-new worship center for the first time since the building at 2423 W. 26th St. was destroyed in the May 22, 2011, tornado.
“It’s definitely a celebration,” said Denise Steele, a 10-year member of the church, as she left the service. “It’s definitely a ‘welcome home’ for all of us.”
Lead pastor Aaron Brown echoed those sentiments.
“It’s coming home,” he said during a brief tour of the new worship center on Friday. “I imagine it’s like folks who’ve had their home destroyed. It’s just a sign of hope, a sign of rebirth.”
‘Just a building’
It’s a rebirth that, like much of Joplin, has its roots in the destruction caused by the 2011 tornado.
One person was in the church building on May 22, cutting strawberries in the kitchen. She was unhurt; the tornado ripped apart the worship center and heavily damaged much of the rest of the building, which includes a gymnasium, offices, classrooms and a children’s area.
Later that evening, Brown worked his way through the devastated neighborhood to the church.
“‘It’s just a building,’ that’s exactly what I said,” he said of his arrival to the ruined worship center. “It’s just stuff. The church is not a building. The church is people on a mission doing their best to follow Jesus.”
Brown said the less damaged part of the building became a triage center that night as residents from the neighborhood were transported there to get their cuts stitched and their broken bones set. The tables that had been used for children’s crafts during Sunday school earlier that day were being used as makeshift stretchers and surgical props for injured survivors, he said.
The congregation, which averages between 800 and 1,000 people each Sunday, held worship services at The Bridge in southeast Joplin on the Sunday after the tornado and then moved to Ozark Christian College for the following five months. Since last October, church members have held their services inside their repaired and remodeled gymnasium, even as the reconstruction of their worship center continued just a few feet to the south.
Steele, of Carl Junction, said seeing the ruined building had been “devastating,” but in worshiping with her church family elsewhere, she never felt displaced.
“We knew it wasn’t the end” of St. Paul’s, she said.
Cleanup and rebuilding
Other churches and volunteers from the community turned out to help clean up debris and salvage items from the rubble. Members of St. Paul’s, meanwhile, also rallied, working after the tornado with groups such as Joplin Area Habitat for Humanity and Restore Joplin and logging about 10,000 volunteer hours per month, Brown said.
“Our mission is to love God, love others and serve the world,” he said. “They (church members) just knew they needed to work through their small groups to start connecting people. They just did what they always do: They go out and serve the world.”
The congregation also had to work through the loss of six of their own: Glenn and Lorie Holland, who had just celebrated their 15th wedding anniversary at Walt Disney World; Will Norton, who had just graduated from Joplin High School; Judy Smith, who had owned the Second Hand Rose Consignment Store; Nancy Douthitt, who had owned Douthitt Grocery Store until 1987; and Wendy Istas, who was involved with the Stained Glass Theatre.
Brown said his congregation has supported the victims’ families and friends since the tornado and taken special care to recognize the lives lost at various points during the past 15 months, including the one-year anniversary.
‘A time for everything’
Today, the new 650-seat worship center is similar in design to the former, with the addition of a balcony, Brown said. The lobby just outside is slightly larger. In addition to volunteers forming a “brigade of vacuum cleaners, Swiffers and dust rags” over the past few days to spruce up the church, construction crews on Friday were working to put the finishing touches on the building.
At the front of the worship center is the metal cross and waterlogged Bible that were dug out of the former building. The Bible, still stuck with small pieces of shingle and insulation, is open to the page as it was found in the rubble: Ecclesiastes 3, which talks about “a time for everything, and a season for every activity under the heavens.”
Ryan Meier, of Webb City, said he, his wife and two young children knew they had found a home at St. Paul’s when they first visited the church about four years ago. The devastation of the building by the tornado was difficult to see but not impossible to mend, he said after Sunday’s 10 a.m. service.
“Basically there was a hole in my heart for the church, but we believed that we were strong enough to overcome that,” he said. “Coming back and worshiping in this section of the building does feel like coming home, in a way. I mean, I had tears coming to my eyes.”
The new worship center at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Joplin is built on the same concrete slab that had been the foundation of the former worship center, which was destroyed in the 2011 tornado.