JOPLIN, Mo. — The sky over Joplin, Mo., continued to spit
light rain and clouds threatened on the horizon four days after one of the
nation’s deadliest tornadoes plowed through the heart of the city. Search and
rescue teams continued their hopeful trek through miles of debris.
And through it all, a spirit of resolute hope spurred on this city of 50,000.
In the middle of the work clearing rubble were Southern Baptist disaster relief
volunteers by the score.
Chainsaw crews from Missouri and Oklahoma
clocked hundreds of hours helping churches and residents clear tons of fallen
“I’m just stunned today, speechless. Please keep the people of Joplin
in your prayers,” said Missouri Baptist Convention interim executive director
Jay Hughes, who was touring the site of the devastation along with North
American Mission Board president Kevin Ezell.
One of the first disaster relief (DR) volunteers Hughes and Ezell visited was
also a storm victim, Gary Hunley. Hunley, a
Missouri DR volunteer who has already been helping with the response, was
taking time to search the remains of his home May 25.
“I believe the Lord allowed this to help me learn how to relate to people,”
said Hunley as he and his wife, Twyla, combed through their belongings. They
are members of First
in Oronogo, Mo,
which is 10 miles from Joplin.
“We had downsized,” said Twyla. “We had just gotten the house the way we wanted
it. Now it is gone.”
Twyla credited God’s protection and her husband’s devotion for their survival. “The
wind was blowing so hard. We were praying. I did not think we were going to
make it. Gary never let go of me. We never
stopped praying, and God never let go of us, either.”
agreed. “It was very scary — all the noise and the air pressure,” he said. “The
wind was so strong it felt like 10 men trying to push the door in. Then
everything started breaking apart. We asked God to help us. When it was over,
everything else was gone but He held our hand.”
Said Ezell, “If we could see people’s spiritual needs in the same way we see
physical needs, we would be much quicker to attempt to help them. You look at
the incredible destruction — everything is gone — and a few blocks away
everything is fine. Spiritually, it is the same way: you look at one family and
they are fine. Just down the block another family is falling apart.”
Southern Baptists, Ezell said, have the opportunity to meet both spiritual and
physical needs through disaster relief. He echoed Hughes’ call for prayer for
the people of Joplin, and those
affected by storms across the country.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon addressed members of the faith-based DR response teams
in the city and told them that they had the opportunity to minister in critical
ways, thanking them for their efforts. He said search and rescue efforts would
continue through the end of the week. The death toll in Joplin
stands at 125 and is expected to climb.
President Obama will visit the city on Sunday and take part in a citywide memorial
service for the victims of the storm, the governor said.
Following the governor’s dialog, Ezell and Hughes met with Federal Emergency
Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate, who thanked the men for the work
of Southern Baptist DR. Also at the meeting was David Myers, director of the
White House Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with the
Department of Homeland Security.
Missouri Baptist DR director Rick Seaton said assessment teams were still at
“We have seven Missouri
chainsaw units out, and two from Oklahoma,”
Seaton said. “We also have a shower unit operating and we have 11 chaplains
working today. We expect to have a feeding unit up and operating when the city
is ready for that.”
The current Southern Baptist DR incident command center located at the Baptist
Student Union of Missouri Southern State University might move in the next few
days, Seaton said. Housing is being provided at College
View Baptist Church,
Few places suffered more destruction than Harmony
Heights Baptist Church.
What little is left of the church, located across the street from the heavily
damaged Joplin High School, makes it even more remarkable that only three
people were killed when the storm hit during Sunday night services.
“Pastor Charlie Burnett was preaching when the sirens went off. There were 53
people there and they moved into the interior hallways,” said Steve
Patterson, Spring River Baptist Association director of missions.
One of the survivors was Greg Hailey, who had been attending Harmony
Heights for about five months.
“One of our members is a weather spotter, and he was telling us that conditions
were right for tornadoes,” Hailey said. Then we heard the siren. But when you
live here, how many times do you hear a siren and think nothing of it? Then the
siren went off a second time and they told us a tornado was on the ground.
Pastor Burnett told us to move to the center of the hallways.”
The next thing Hailey knew, he was covered in debris. When he was able to pull himself
out of the rubble, nothing was left of the church. One car was thrown into the
sanctuary and the parking lot was a mangle of twisted vehicles.
“I started helping pull other people out,” Hailey said. Pastor Burnett, who is
blind, had no way of knowing that a steel I-beam missed his head by inches.
And near the devastated Saint John’s
medical complex Empire Baptist
Church was also erased. While no
members were injured at the church, many of their homes were also obliterated.
But in the midst of the tragedy, jubilant reunions brought hope. Gary
Hunley was embraced by friend and fellow disaster relief volunteer Ron Crow in
front of what little was left of the Hunley home. Crow has been helping
organize the efforts in Joplin and
is pastor of First
in Diamond, Mo., about 17 miles
from Joplin. The two men have
worked together on DR projects.
“When I saw the destruction and knew it was in his area I
screamed out, ‘Where’s Gary?’”
Crow said. With all the other DR activity the men were not reunited until
is a chainsaw guy. The first time we took Gary
on a DR response it was about eight months after he had become a Christian,”
Crow said. “We arrived on site in Florida
and we were ready to unload the trailer. I was looking for Gary
and asking people where he’d slipped off to. Then I saw him. He was on the
front porch with the homeowner sharing the gospel.”
Said Hunley, “I do believe God allowed this to happen so I can do a better job
of helping people. You just don’t know where to start. You don’t want to let
people help you because you think other people need it more. Then you realize
you need the help. Where do you start? You pick up one thing and then you think
you need to contact the insurance company. Your mind is just racing.
“Southern Baptists have been a true blessing to me. They have helped me grow in
my faith. When you face something like this, you need to have your life in
order. You never know how long you have.”
Some chaplains serving in the Joplin
response were accompanying chainsaw crews Wednesday while others walked the
miles of shattered homes. One pair was a father and son team, Steve
and Matt Tanner. Both men also happen to be directors of mission, Steve
in Mexico, Mo.,
and his son in Poplar Bluff, Mo.
“We walked the neighborhoods and ministered to people,” Steve
said. “One lady had nothing left but a slab. She was knocked out in the storm.
When she came to, everything was gone. She was concerned about the mental
health facility next door where three people were killed.”
Said Matt Miller, “Another woman was still dealing with the trauma of finding a
young child dead in the street in front of her home after the storm. We did a
lot of praying today.”
People can help by praying and donating financially, said Hughes of the
Missouri Baptist Convention.
“We are saddened by the destruction, but we are committed to assisting the
community of Joplin in any way we
can for as long as they need the help,” Hughes said. “We would ask people to
consider how they can be involved in the long-term support for the community.”
While it is still too early to plan long-term rebuild, one thing that will keep
Joplin on people’s minds is a World
Changers student mission week set for July 25-30 in the city this summer.
“We are committed to the project in Joplin,”
said John Bailey, team leader for World Changers and PowerPlant at NAMB. “We
have had it on the schedule for the last year. We are committed to be there. It
may not look like a traditional World Changers project where we work on roofs,
but we will be ministering to the people of Joplin.
If a church wants their youth to be involved, they can still register for Joplin.”
For information about the Joplin World Changers project visit www.world-changers.net.
(EDITOR’S NOTE — Conway is a writer
for the North American Mission Board. To donate to NAMB’s disaster relief fund,
visit www.namb.net and hit the “donate now”
button. Other ways to donate are by calling 1-866-407-NAMB (6262) or mailing
checks to NAMB, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta,
Checks should be designated for “Storms 2011.” Donations can also be sent via
texting “NAMBDR” to the number “40579.” A one-time donation of $10 will be
added to the caller’s mobile phone bill or deducted from any prepaid balance.)