By Emily Younker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
The Harmony Heights Baptist Church building is new, but Charlie Burnett, who has served as pastor for 17 years, already feels like he belongs there.
“There’s nothing like being in your own home,” he said. “Nineteen months ago we were very comfortable in our building we had, and it got ripped out from under us. Now we’re in our new building. We know it’s ours.”
Members of the newly rebuilt church are preparing to open their doors Sunday for their first in-house worship service since the May 2011 tornado, which destroyed the building and killed three of their own. Anticipating what will likely be an emotional morning for some, Burnett said the focus of Sunday’s Christmas service will be prayer.
“We want to make this a very intimate, close worship time,” he said.
The old church had stood at 2025 Indiana Ave. since it was built in 1960. Its sanctuary seated 275 people, and a family life center had been added 10 years ago. The church had also created a breakfast ministry for students of Joplin High School, which was across the street.
On May 22, 2011, the church’s 5 p.m. worship service started on time with 53 people in attendance. Burnett said the sirens sounded half an hour later, just after he had finished preaching. He told the congregation to go to the preschool and library areas, which both had concrete walls and minimal glass.
Burnett and Mike Tatum, the music leader, were the last two people out of the sanctuary.
“We got about 40 feet from the front doors, and they crashed in,” Burnett said. “We knelt down on the floor, and the roof came off, and our ears popped. And I knew we were in for real trouble.”
At this point in its path, the tornado had slowed to about 10 mph but was packing winds of 200 mph. Burnett estimates that it took about two minutes for the tornado to pass through the church, but “it felt like an eternity,” he said.
When it was finally over, the devastation was complete. The church was in shambles, and most of the congregation was buried beneath it. Three had not survived: Grace Aquino, 46, of Joplin, who threw herself over her 12-year-old son; Ramona M. Bridgeford, 77, of Seneca; and Hallie “Marie” Cook Piquard, 78, of Joplin.
Burnett was uninjured, but because of his blindness, he said he was rooted in place for more than an hour because he could not safely move out of the rubble. In the meantime, people from the neighborhood had begun to arrive on scene to pull people out of the ruins of the building, he said.
“Me not being able to see, I have to listen very closely,” he said. “No one panicked. It was a very orderly type of rescue, in my opinion. The rest of our people were calm, even though some of them were hurt or bleeding.”
The steps of rebuilding began almost right away, Burnett said. Plans were drawn up and approved by the congregation, which was worshipping temporarily at Bethel Assembly of God in south Joplin. Church members wanted a building that looked modern from the outside but would feel traditional from the inside, with plenty of classroom and activity space and a large sanctuary, he said.
They got what they were looking for — and at no cost to them, thanks to the church’s insurance policy. The new church rises visibly at the corner of 20th Street and Indiana Avenue, sitting between two flat landscapes where Joplin High School and the Dillon’s grocery store used to be. It’s still missing its steeple — those materials arrived Friday — but crews were working busily Friday to put the finishing touches, such as soap in the restroom dispensers, on the interior.
Gene Henderson, a 24-year member of the church, said he feels relief to be wrapping up the past 19 months of transition.
“It’s been quite an experience, and hopefully the last one I’ll ever go through in my life,” he said.
Tatum, the music pastor and a 12-year member of the church, said it has been difficult at times since the tornado.
“We’ve been displaced; there’s times we’ve been unsure of the time frame of when we’d be back in here,” he said. “We knew there would be a finish line, but there’s been times when it’s felt unsettled.”
Tatum, tearing up even as he spoke, said he expects an emotionally charged worship service on Sunday. But he said it will be great to be back in a familiar place.
Referring to the main character in “The Wizard of Oz,” he said: “Just like Dorothy, we’re coming home. I might even click my heels.”
Harmony Heights Baptist Church, 2025 Indiana Ave., will hold its first worship service in its new building at 10:30 a.m. Sunday. Sunday school classes, which start at 9:15 a.m., will resume Dec. 30.