— Pastor John Swadley was still huddled in the crawl space under his house when
he began forming the plan for Forest Park
response to the tornado.
Swadley and his family carried a radio with them as they took cover the night
of May 22. The local station soon began feeding live reports of the tornado’s
destruction. They were spared. Joplin
“I knew at that time we were dealing with a disaster of
major proportions,” he said.
Forest Park is now at the heart of
the national relief effort for Joplin.
The church is coordinating food, volunteer assignments and donations in the
aftermath of an EF-5 tornado (winds of more than 200 miles per hour) that
killed at least 125 and injured 750, with 9 rescued and an unknown number of
people still missing.
The National Weather Service reported it was the eighth deadliest tornado in U.S.
history. President Barack Obama is planning on visiting Joplin
“We are just helping people like Jesus would,” Swadley said. “We are being the
church and offering help, hope and healing.”
Forest Park’s main campus, which
runs about 1,000 in Sunday worship, is just a few blocks north of the
storm-damaged area in Joplin. The
unharmed church building is perfectly situated to serve as a base of operations
for relief efforts.
Response began just minutes after the storm as Swadley used his Facebook page
to help family and church members find each other. Church leaders determined
Monday morning the most urgent need was for food. Hot meals are being prepared
in the church kitchen. Forest Park
members are also loading sandwiches in the church van and delivering them to people
in the city.
The church’s “bus barn” storage facility has been designated the receiving and
staging area for donated items and where supplies such as diapers, toothpaste
and soap are distributed. Offers of help have been pouring in from throughout the
“I’m really proud of my Heavenly Father and how He is using us for His work,”
Forest Park is the flagship church
for the Missouri Baptist Convention in the Joplin
area, said John Marshall, convention president and pastor of Second
“They will be in the thick of it until the end,” Marshall
said. “They are very community minded. They have three campuses, so they are
well-positioned all the way around.”
Forest Park members have also
experienced great loss. Thirty-one members have uninhabitable homes. Nearly all
of them have been taken into homes of fellow members. Many members share
stories of how God protected them through the storm.
“When it says in the Bible to show hospitality, our people have stepped up and
done that beautifully to help each other and their friends and Sunday School
classes,” Swadley said.
One of the most urgent needs has been helping members get salvageable
belongings collected and out of the rain. (Wednesday’s forecast called for a 60
percent chance of rain and scattered thunderstorms.) In addition, grief
counseling sessions have been set up at the church and more support groups will
be forming. Swadley’s message on Sunday will be titled, “Where do we go from
“We’re going to try to construct a worship service where everyone can
experience God’s presence in a way so that they leave stronger than they came,”
Most debris clearing is on hold while the search and rescue operation is under
way, but volunteers are expected in large numbers soon. Samaritan’s Purse will
use Forest Park as its base of
operations, providing expertise and direction while the church supplies workers
and resources for the relief effort.
“God sets the agenda for His church. When something like this happens, we have
to set aside our plans and goals in the short term and adjust to what God would
have us do,” Swadley said.
The recovery and Forest Park’s
efforts are not short term, Swadley said, but will take many months.
“We’re going to have dozens and dozens of people who will be
unemployed because the place where they work no longer exists,” he said. “We
want to be able to help provide financial support so they’re not further hurt
in their already wounded heart. We want to do our best to cushion the blow as
much as we can.”
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Mires is a contributing writer for The Pathway, the official
newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. To donate and learn how to help
with relief in Joplin, visit www.mobaptist.org/modr.)