By Ryan Richardson
Globe Staff Writer
JOPLIN, Mo. —
As the Rev. Tommy Freeman began his Easter morning sermon, he could hear his words echo through the halls of St. James United Methodist Church.
The church reopened Sunday, nearly two years after it was destroyed by the 2011 tornado.
“Resurrection time is the greatest time,” Freeman told the 60-member congregation. “And today we celebrate that as the time that we have all come home to be together again.”
The tornado leveled the building, leaving only a couple of walls standing. The organ, piano, pews and more were never seen again.
The church was rebuilt at 2501 E. 20th St. — the same site that was claimed by the tornado. Freeman, who led the church through four different locations including his own basement after the tornado, said it was good to be together in a familiar location.
“We lost our church, but we didn’t lose each other,” he said. “We were excited to be together on Easter because of what it means to the resurrection. We rebuilt together, and now we can worship together.”
Freeman’s excitement was shared by members of the congregation, including Bruce Layman, who led the benediction. Layman has been an active member of St. James for several years.
“Today has been a long time coming,” Layman said. “We moved around a lot after we lost our building, and it was trying. But we were there for each other through the whole ordeal. That is what matters to everyone here.”
Joyce Fitzsimmons, of Joplin, and her granddaughter Sarah Sparks, of Diamond, attended Sunday’s service to celebrate Easter. Fitzsimmons has been a member of St. James for more than five years.
“I feel like I came home today,” Fitzsimmons said. “It took a long time to get here, but now that we are under the same roof, I feel like it is a blessing to see everyone here.”
Church members broke ground in June 2012, with American Construction Inc., of Joplin, in charge of the $1.3 million rebuilding effort.
Freeman said the new building, at 10,565 square feet, is smaller than the previous church.
“We had the luxury of planning out everything we wanted and all at once,” he said. “We are 800 square feet smaller, but we also are out of this debt-free with a brand new facility. Today we’re back, and I’m glad that I could experience it inside our church once more.”
THE REV. TOMMY FREEMAN is the former pastor of a United Methodist church in Louisiana that was devastated by a tornado more than a decade ago. Rebuilding was a challenge the congregation couldn’t have pulled off without help from Methodists and other denominations and individuals around the country, he said.
SO WHEN FREEMAN LEARNED that an arson fire had destroyed St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Lamar in 2009, he rallied his congregation to help. The group raised $608 by passing the plate.
THIS TIME, it was Freeman’s turn again as churches from 20 states stepped forward with donations to help rebuild St. James United Methodist Church in Joplin.