By Paul Boatman
Shortly after 11 a.m. on Sunday, November 17, 2013, an EF-4 tornado, with winds nearing 200 mph, cut a devastating quarter-mile wide swath through Washington, Illinois. Jeff Browning, lead pastor, and Jon Pittman, worship/youth minister, were leading services at Washington Christian Church as the storm roared through the city, narrowly missing the church building. This interview took place two weeks later.
Tell about your experience.
Jeff Browning: When we heard tornado sirens after Sunday school, we got people into tornado shelter areas, but when an ominous dark cloud blew past and the sky appeared to be clearing, we were starting to relax. Early worshippers were about to leave the building and we were getting ready for second service when the sirens went off again. Looking out, we saw a monstrous black cloud coming our way. At first, some resisted going to the shelters.
Jon Pittman: Yes, but people’s cell phones were giving storm alerts and that funnel cloud was coming quickly. Jeff was with mostly adults in the library, while my wife and I were in the restrooms with mostly children. We had similar experiences, but the people with us had a variety of experiences.
Browning: It happened so fast. As the tornado drew close, lights went out and the windowless inner rooms where we crowded went dark. Both Jon and I heard a sound like a steam locomotive bearing down on us. But one of our elders started praying aloud. Many in the room said they never heard the deep chugging sound—they only remember the elder’s prayer. From lights-out to the end of the storm was less than a minute; then it became eerily silent.
Pittman: As the children crammed into the bathrooms, my wife started playing music on her iPhone. Most of the children don’t recall any sound other than the singing. Then with the sudden silence, the singing continued while some of us adults went out to see what had happened.
Browning: When we stepped outside, the funnel cloud was already in the distance, moving about 50 miles per hour. At first, the only damage we saw were uprooted trees on the edge of our property. There’s a large Methodist church building a quarter-mile north of us. It appeared to be intact. Then we realized that houses and buildings between the two churches were gone—whole neighborhoods looked like piles of splinters.
How were your people handling this scene?
Browning: There was no panic, but concern was deep. Some of our people lived in that area. We walked over there, and we could not even tell where we were. A man said, “I know my house was on this street, but I can’t tell which wreckage is mine.” The impact is still settling in. About 1,100 homes were seriously damaged, 60 percent of them either destroyed or beyond repair. In our church of 250, about 50 people’s homes were hit. In our nursery school another 50 people were severely affected.
Yet the loss of life was minimal.
Browning: Just two people died—a man caught out in the wind and a woman buried in the rubble of her home. There’s a lot of talk about how many people were in church when the storm hit. Being in church may have saved their lives. There were 2,500 people in churches in or near the tornado’s swath. The path of the tornado was amazing. If the storm had tracked just 200 yards further southeast, it would have taken not only our building, it would have hit a Christian nursing home, our community center—where another church meets—and two more church buildings just beyond ours. It could have been so much worse.
How is the relief effort developing?
Pittman: The whole town was immediately inundated with help. Big organizations like the American Red Cross mobilized, and many volunteers just showed up—more than we could make use of. Police closed off the neighborhoods because the rubble and power lines made it unsafe to be there. We had to tell caring friends not to come because we could not mobilize them. One group called and asked us to feed and house a volunteer team. We had to say, “Please be patient. We will contact you later, when we can make better use of you.”
Browning: The Methodist church up the road with a larger building was able to serve as the staging area for disaster relief. We had an unusual event during the first days after the tornado. Three power company trucks had stopped in our parking lot. I went out and told the workers to come into the church building. We had hot coffee and it was cold outside. Within minutes, several trucks were in our lot and the workers began making our church their “command center” for the natural gas/electric detail in the neighborhoods. Our church foyer became a safe haven for the workers. We were blessed to bless.
By midweek, Gary Finley from IDES [International Disaster Emergency Services, based in Kempton, Indiana] had arranged to send their relief expert, Darin Kroger, to us. He is now “on staff” with us. He helps us make good use of the money that comes in through IDES and from other places. For example, people in a nearby apartment complex are less likely to be helped by insurance than homeowners. So our elders are meting out funds and gift cards where they will help most.
How are you men personally impacted?
Pittman: It’s been rough. In that first week, I never felt more helpless. I felt like I should be doing more in the face of the enormous need all around me.
Browning: I was greatly humbled. I have been reminded that the apostle Paul observed that when he was weakest Jesus used him most effectively. I probably wept more that week than I have in my entire life. How can I have been in ministry for 36 years and not know what to do?
Our people wanted to get to their homes to see whether there were salvageable items, but they were kept away because of the danger. I felt like all I could do was to pray and cry with them. It took a while to realize that our partnership in grief was the immediate ministry need.
Where is this going now?
Browning: As the days pass, I think this moment of humbling is part of God preparing me for the long haul. The past 24 years of ministry in Washington may have been preparing me for this moment. Winter is setting in and the churches are working together to keep people warm, fed, and comforted. Nobody seems to care who gets the credit.
Any advice to share with other pastors in disaster situations?
Browning: Randy Gariss from College Heights Christian Church in Joplin, Missouri, called with two good words for me: (1) “Let the young guys position the building materials and the pallets of water. You be the shepherd God called you to be”; and (2) “Remember the tortoise wins the race.” Recovery from a disaster is a marathon, not a sprint. Long after other disasters have displaced our tornado in public consciousness, we will still be here, serving God by meeting the ongoing needs in our community. I believe this is God’s focus for us. Forty seconds of wind clarified the call for this 180-year-old church.
Paul E. Boatman serves as chaplain with Safe Haven Hospice in Lincoln, Illinois.