A Widow’s Faith
By Karen Wingate
On May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado bulldozed through the south side of Joplin, Missouri,
demolishing a regional hospital, nine schools (including the high school and adjoining tech school), several large stores, churches, businesses, and more than 8,000 homes. Hundreds were injured, and 163 died.
In the ensuing months, relief came from across the country. This is the story of just one of those efforts, as churches in 21 small western Illinois communities helped a young widow rebuild her home. As they worked, they saw God rebuild relationships and restore faith.
After the violent storm subsided, Stephanie Dalton and her three teenage children emerged unharmed from the wreckage of their home to a landscape of twisted trees, flattened homes, and broken glass. The Daltons were among the 99 families from College Heights Christian Church who lost their homes.
Dalton’s husband had died from melanoma 12 years earlier, leaving her to raise three small children alone and to start an in-home day care center to support the family. After the tornado, she sensed that starting over was part of God’s bigger plan for her family’s life. “Just wait and see what God is going to do for my family,” she told a friend. Little did she know the magnitude of her words.
More than 400 miles east of Joplin, Roy Day and Ryan Johnson saw images of Joplin’s devastation and knew they wanted to be involved in the relief effort. They were mere acquaintances before the tornado, but decided to travel to Joplin together one weekend to help remove debris. On the way home, they knew they had to do more.
Day and Johnson are both members of the same small congregation, LaHarpe (Illinois) Christian Church. Day is a cement contractor and a trustee for the church. He and his wife, Carla, raise four children and three foster children. Johnson, an insurance salesman and financial adviser, works with the high school youth group. He and his wife, Ashley, have five children.
After returning home from that initial trip to Joplin, the men contacted College Heights Christian Church, a megachurch in northeastern Joplin and one of the hubs of the volunteer effort. For almost two months, they repeatedly asked Roger Lieb, coordinator of volunteer efforts, to connect them with a family for whom they could build a new home. In hindsight, they can see God’s purpose in the wait. One hour after Dalton told her friend she knew God would provide for her, College Heights called and told her that a group in western Illinois wanted to build a home for her.
After making the commitment to Dalton, Day and Johnson devised a plan to raise the money and organize work crews. They realized their abilities complemented one another—Day had experience building homes, and Johnson had marketing and financial skills. After seeking the support of the LaHarpe church’s eldership, they invited representatives from 11 area churches to a meeting where they shared their dream.
“Through relationships with other churches, many more churches became involved in the effort,” Johnson said. “Roy and I were like two sticks, not contributing much to the fire, but remaining patient while the kindling started the fire. God provided the heat and the people added more sticks until it became a bonfire.”
What a Few Can Do
Eventually, church members from 21 communities came forward to participate. No single congregation was larger than 150 members. At final count, the group raised more than $156,000, and about 70 people made multiple eight-hour treks to Joplin to serve on rotating work crews.
Of course, this is just one of many house rebuilding stories in Joplin. Many businesses and nonprofit organizations—such as Habitat for Humanity, Samaritan’s Purse, and the Rebuild Joplin project—have cooperated in the tornado recovery and relief. Large local churches, including College Heights, serve as a clearinghouse for distribution and rebuilding.
But the Dalton house project is different.
“In other situations, people asked what they could do, and CHCC coordinated the work effort,” said Roger Lieb. “They (Day and Johnson) came to us with a plan, and we offered them support to make it happen.”
Early on, the men defined their focus by creating the slogan, “One Family, One Home, One Purpose.” They set up a website (www.onefamilyhomepurpose.com) that described the project and provided visitors with an opportunity to donate. Daily blog entries, complete with pictures, showed the progress of the house, and videos posted on YouTube told the evolving story. Dalton kept friends up-to-date and coordinated evening meals for the workers on Facebook.
We Are One Body
A wooden header spans two walls in the sunroom of the Daltons’ new home. It bears the mission statement—“One Family, One Home, One Purpose”—and the names of all who worked on the home. Plaster and paint now cover the inscription, but Dalton and her children will always know one wall bears the mark of loving people who made their home possible.
The website reminds visitors that God deserves the credit: “We are reaching out to the Daltons because of the love that has been poured out on us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Our love and attention should always be directed toward this family, not the wood, brick, or money that it takes to construct the home.”
It quickly became more than a construction project, as Day and Johnson watched churches and communities enthusiastically give of their time, money, skills, and labor. God also worked in their own lives. Though neither man relishes public speaking, each time they made a presentation to a church or community meeting, “the words came.” Their wives talk of how their husbands became more determined, more compassionate for the hurting, and more confident in what God was calling them to do.
The project helped draw families, churches, and communities together. “We weren’t just building a home,” Day said, “we were building relationships.”
“The fellowship was hard to beat,” said Cherilyn Thomas, a volunteer from Rose-ville, Illinois.
As the home took shape, work teams witnessed God’s provision. Rain threatened for hours on the final day of roofing, but held off until just after work was finished. On another day, only minutes after a company reneged on a promised donation, and after Day and Johnson prayed over the matter, there were three phone calls promising donations that exceeded the amount of the loss.
“God was an incredible project manager,” Johnson said. “He had the right people there at the right time to accomplish what needed to be done.” Considering teams traveled from more than 400 miles away, Johnson says there is only one explanation—“divine leadership.”
First Corinthians 12:5 says, “There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord.” Joplin relief efforts became a showcase of how the body of Christ works together for a common goal. As Lieb notes, the church came out in droves after the tornado “to do what the church is supposed to do.”
A watching world noticed. A cameraman from the Weather Channel reportedly said, “No wonder they call this the Bible Belt.” A missionary traveling overseas showed his Muslim seatmate a news report about the tornado, commenting that Joplin was his hometown. “Is it true,” the Muslim asked, “that Christians all over the United States are coming to Joplin and assisting them?”
With the Dalton project, small churches scattered across the farmland of Western Illinois found that by working together and following God’s leading, they could make something wonderful happen. They discovered the joy of drawing closer to work toward a common goal and the excitement of being involved in a project larger than anything they could have accomplished on their own.
Donations for Joplin Are Still Needed
Rebuilding Joplin will take a long time. Skilled labor and financial donations are still needed. If you would like to help, contact College Heights Christian Church, 4311 Newman Road, Joplin, MO 64801; (417) 624-6915; www.chcchurch.org.
Karen Wingate is a minister’s wife and freelance writer living in Roseville, Illinois.