By Victor Knowles
It was a searing scene straight from of the book of Revelation. Thunder crashing, lightning flashing, wind howling in excess of 200 mph, hail hammering everything in its path like a merciless Hun invasion, and “ball lightning”—big balls of red fire bouncing across the ground like bizarre basketballs from Hell.
“It was like a nuclear bomb was dropped,” exclaimed a stunned Errol Bolt, who has survived several hurricanes in his native Jamaica.
And when the EF-5 tornado had spent its fury, one-third of the city of Joplin, Missouri, lay in ruins. The Weather Channel’s Al Roker initially described the devastation as “six miles of pure Hell,” but the National Weather Service in Springfield, Missouri, later determined the killer tornado’s path was 13.8 miles long and just shy of 1 mile at its widest. At last tally, the nation’s deadliest tornado in 60 years claimed 153 lives, injured 1,150 people, destroyed 8,000 homes, mangled 18,000 vehicles, demolished 400 businesses, and displaced 5,000 workers.
Joplin is a city of 50,000 people in the southwest corner of the Show-Me State. Of particular interest to readers of Christian Standard, Joplin is home to many churches and parachurch ministries connected with the fellowship of Christian churches and churches of Christ. Ozark Christian College and three dozen other parachurch ministries are located in Joplin. There are one dozen Christian churches within Joplin’s city limits and nine sister congregations in towns that border Joplin.
On Sunday, May 22, the Blendville Christian Church was preparing for its evening service.
The deadly tornado dropped from the sky at 5:41 p.m. As sirens went off, a neighbor ran into the church crying, “Take cover!” Blendville’s members headed to the basement. For 90 seconds the building shook with fury. When the people emerged, only the front wall of the sanctuary was left standing—the one with a large cross above the baptistery. One week later, the 150-member congregation literally “pitched a tent” in its parking lot for a Sunday service. Hazel Essley, a member for 36 years, said, “God’s not through with us.”
John Hunter, who is legally blind and is librarian at Ozark Christian College, was at home with his wife, Naomi, and their granddaughter. In a piece written for CNN.com, John said the sound of the tornado was deafening, “as if a giant were pounding the house with his fist.”
The family sought cover in the bathtub, John shielding his wife and granddaughter’s bodies with his own. Naomi called on Jesus to “curse the monstrous storm.” When it was over, the only wall left standing still had a picture hanging from a nail—Peace in the Midst of the Storm.
The Dead Zone
Dean Wells, a member at First Christian Church in Webb City, Missouri, was at work at Home Depot when the deadly tornado struck. Witnesses say Wells, a career U.S. Army veteran, heroically directed 50 people to safety before a wall fell and crushed him to death. Wells, 59, sang with his church group every Tuesday at area nursing homes.
David A. Vanderhoofven, an alumnus of Ozark Christian College, got to his home just 10 minutes after the tornado struck. He told the Kansas City Star he could hear his wife’s faint cries beneath the wreckage: “Help me! Help me!” By the time rescue workers could remove the rubble, Darian and 13-month-old son, Joshua, had died.
Natalia Puebla, who had just completed her freshman year at OCC, was also killed in the tornado. College faculty member Doug Welch had a stack of papers to grade and noticed that Natalia’s was on the top. She had chosen to write about the resurrection of Christ.
One of the last people to be identified was Faith Dunn, beloved teacher at OCC from 1973 to 1987.
Bob Heath, OCC Bookstore manager and for 20 years a chaplain for the Joplin Police Department, had the grim task of notifying most of the families that their loved ones had been killed. A New York Times reporter wrote, “He arrives here early each morning and leaves late in the evening, and intends to do it day after day until the list of the missing is down to zero and the makeshift morgue is empty.”
Fourteen people connected with Christian churches or Ozark Christian College lost their lives as a result of the tornado. The Central City church lost three members. More than 200 people from 13 churches had their homes destroyed. Those congregations suffering the greatest losses of members’ homes were College Heights (90), Blendville (25), Villa Heights (16), Park Plaza (13), and Central City (9). Twenty-four people connected with OCC lost homes, as did 12 employees of Spring River Christian Village.
The Feeding of the 6,000
Ozark Christian College and College Heights Christian Church were (and are) key players in the response to the cataclysmic event. The American Red Cross command center is located in OCC’s Multi-purpose Building. The Joplin Family YMCA is using the second floor of the Missions Building for free child care for families affected by the tornado. Temporary housing in residence halls is provided for displaced families from the extended OCC family and many volunteers in the relief effort. The emergency management director for Joplin, Keith Stammer, is an OCC graduate.
College President Matt Proctor said, “We are deeply saddened by the loss of life in the storm. The whole community of Joplin is banding together now in the aftermath, and many churches and individuals have called to offer their prayers, their help, and their financial contributions. We are very grateful for this outpouring of love and support.”
The Joplin Globe on June 2 praised College Heights Christian Church for its efficient relief efforts. “In the days since the May 22 tornado, church members and volunteers have created a system of supply, distribution and service that would be the envy of many large retail chains.”
The 2,500-member church, known citywide for its annual “Great Day of Service,” is ministering to 1,500 people a day. On Sunday, May 29, it fed 6,000 people, including volunteer workers.
The day I visited CHCC I saw five vans from the Joplin Islamic Center being unloaded by women dressed in traditional Muslim garb. They told a church worker, “You guys are awesome. So organized. We will be back!” Jewish rabbis from Chicago have inquired about how to assist. Waitresses from Hooters have helped serve food. Nearly every denomination in town has brought supplies or volunteered.
“This is a city of miracles,” said Jay St. Clair, CHCC minister of community outreach
Every Christian church and parachurch ministry in Joplin is involved in the recovery effort in various ways. Spring River Christian Village took in surviving residents from among the three nursing homes that were wiped out. Teams from sister Christian churches near and far arrive nearly every day bringing supplies and offering help.
The Eyes of the World Are on You
Three days after the tornado, Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon called a special meeting with the faith-based ministries in Joplin. He told us, “The eyes of the world are on you.”
That literally came true on Sunday, May 29, when Randy Gariss, preaching minister with College Heights Christian Church, led the nationally televised “State Day of Prayer” memorial service in the 2,000-seat Taylor Performing Arts Center at Missouri Southern State University. Visibly fighting back tears, Gariss read from Romans 8:35, 37: “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.”
Two local ministers, Gov. Nixon, and President Obama also spoke at the service. President Obama mentioned Dean Wells, calling him an “everyday hero.” He also quoted the apostle Paul: “We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed, but not in despair; Persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed” (2 Corinthians 4:8, 9, King James Version).
A missionary in Africa said a young woman, not a believer, was watching the coverage on Al Jazeera, the Arabic news channel. The woman exclaimed, “They are talking about Joplin. They are saying they have never seen anything like it before. People are taking in strangers from the street. People are opening their homes to feed and clothe anyone in need. They are saying it is the church!“
The missionary said, “Joplin, you have been given a microphone, and the world is listening!”
Victor Knowles is founder and president of POEM (Peace on Earth Ministries), Joplin, Missouri (www.poeministries.org).