3:00 P.M. EST May 26, 2011
The Rev. Aaron Brown (right), senior pastor at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Joplin, exchanges contact phone numbers with Southwest District Superintendent
the Rev. Sandra Nenadal. UMNS photos by Fred Koenig.
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St. Paul’s United Methodist Church sits a mile away from St. John’s Regional Medical Center in Joplin, Mo. – a mile previously filled with residences, businesses and medical offices.
But that was before Sunday’s massive tornado battered both facilities and plowed a path between them. “It’s just leveled,” said the Rev. Aaron Brown, senior pastor. “It’s all gone.”
Coming from the west, the May 22 tornado left St. Paul’s 9-year-old worship center on West 26th Street in ruins. The family life center – a large multipurpose space – sustained major damage.
Heading east, the twister scored a direct hit on the hospital and began following 20th Street – a key east-west corridor on which St. James United Methodist Church sat, not far from the Home Depot where seven bodies were recovered under heavy concrete slabs.
Nothing is left of St. James. The building next door housing the Southwest District office of the United Methodist Missouri Annual (regional) Conference is just barely intact, but uninhabitable. “So many of the homes in the neighborhood where my office is are totally gone,” said the Rev. Sandra Nenadal, the district superintendent.
Also next door to St. James is the parsonage of the Rev. David Fitzmaurice, pastor of First United Methodist Church. He and his dogs rode out the tornado in the utility room.
The parsonage’s front windows were blown out and the garage doors buckled in. Part of the roof came off, letting water in. Fitzmaurice, who prayed throughout the ordeal, was unscathed.
He knows how fortunate he is. “Four doors down the neighbor’s house is gone,” he said. “There isn’t even any debris there.”
The United Methodist Church is preparing to respond at all levels to what is now known to be the deadliest U.S. tornado since 1950, with the death toll currently standing at 125. Local church members are among the dead, including two from St. Paul’s and three persons from Central United Methodist Church in Webb City, part of the Joplin metropolitan area. Funds for relief efforts in Joplin and other areas affected by the 2011 Spring Storms are being collected through the United Methodist Committee on Relief.
But Missouri Area Bishop Robert Schnase assured church members in his May 24 blog that the love of God is “not nearly so vulnerable” as the church’s sacred places.
“The church is not the pile of lumber and bricks left after the destroying winds and rains; the church is the gathering of people standing above the rubble unified by the spirit of Christ to love and serve others,” he wrote.
Losses in the community
It has been hard for pastors and congregants alike to come to terms with what has happened to their city, named after the Rev. Harris Joplin, an early Methodist preacher who settled there in 1839.
An interior view of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church
shows the bare support beams, which are still standing
following the week’s tornado.
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On Sunday, Brown reached St. Paul’s soon after the tornado, but his attention wasn’t on the damaged church. What had been a happy neighborhood across the street minutes before was now acres upon acres of rubble. “I just went out into the community and did what I could to help find people,” he said.
The pastor and other volunteers opened up the children’s wing, which suffered less damage, as a triage unit once they learned St. John’s hospital had been destroyed. There, they cared for the wounded until ambulances could get through.
More members came to St. Paul’s the next day, despite the stormy weather and blocked roads. “As they came in, I just sent them out into the streets of the community and told them to help our neighbors wherever they could,” Brown said.
On Tuesday, Flo Dahms, who lives about four miles away, was picking up pieces of the church building from the yard and putting them in the trash pile.
She was saddened by the news that two people from the church had lost their lives, of others in the church who had lost their homes and she was worried about others that they hadn’t been able to contact. But she was also grateful that she was able to help, and that the church would be there for people in need.
“We’re doing fine, and we will do fine,” she said.
Reaching out to members
The staff at St. Paul’s decided the congregation’s small groups – designed to help members live out the church’s mission – could provide a conduit for communication and caring. “We’re hoping that our small group leaders are following through, checking on folks,” said the Rev. Mark Statler, St. Paul’s associate pastor.
The church will want to know if people are OK and learn whose house is damaged, where they are staying, how to contact them and how the tornado’s aftermath is affecting their livelihood, he added.
Though their own homes were undamaged, both Brown and Statler are feeling the emotional aftereffects of the tornado’s wrath.
“There’s a part of you that goes numb,” said Brown, who has lived in Joplin for 15 years. “Then, every once in a while, the emotions kind of come out. But I see my role as to lead us through this. I know there are certain things we have to do.”
His 11-year-old daughter, Zoe, he noted, has been feeling sad and disoriented. “Her school is destroyed, the church is half gone,” Brown explained. “The school year’s abruptly over. She’s having a hard time.”
Statler admitted to a bit of survivor’s guilt, particularly as he views the destruction and has “to walk by homes and know that’s where friends lived and this is their stuff all over the block.”
While a disaster of this magnitude never occurred “in my backyard” before, Statler was involved in recovery efforts related to the 1993 floods in Missouri. “That experience has actually been real helpful in this one,” he said. “I have a picture of how things need to work on a bigger scale.”
Surveying the damage
Nenadal made it back to her damaged office on Tuesday. A small group of people helped her retrieve confidential files and other sensitive items.
When a computer was picked up, water poured out of it. The building’s glass door and windows were broken out, the roof was damaged, and everything in the office was soaked with water. Drawers were removed from the file cabinets and loaded into the back of Nenadal’s red Dodge pickup to be taken back to her house. The crew kept watching the sky, hoping to get there before the rain set in again.
Across the parking lot from the district office, a young man walked up to a large non-descript pile of rubble with two walls partially standing.
“This is my church,” Trey Tripp said.
The spot he was referring to was St. James United Methodist Church, which had been growing, from fewer than 30 in worship to an average of more than 50 on a Sunday. Every year, the congregation raises thousands of dollars for a special mission project, like a gift Ark to Heifer Project International.
Tripp’s home in Webb City is fine, but his church building is a total loss. “This is a shame,” he said as he looked over the ruins. “We’ve done a lot of work on this place.”
Nenadal agreed, noting the church had built a new kitchen, new fellowship hall, replaced the carpet and remodeled the bathroom. “They had really fixed up everything,” she said. “They were doing so well.”
Gary Parker could be found Tuesday morning at Christ’s Community United Methodist Church on East 44th Street, which wasn’t damaged by the tornado. He cheerfully unloaded a large truckload of bottled water that showed up at the church as an unexpected donation.
A member of the church for 10 years, he was just doing anything he could to help out. Parker’s situation was different from most of the other volunteers, though, in that the church was his new address.
“I’ve lost everything,” Parker said of his home on Wisconsin Street. “I’m staying here now. I gave the insurance company the church phone number, and I’m having my mail forwarded here. Where else is there to go?”
He is among the tornado survivors taking shelter at Christ’s Community, a large facility that includes about 30 classrooms.
Gary Parker stacks water bottles
at Christ Community United Methodist Church in Joplin, Mo.
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Parker always thought the little utility room in his house would be the safest place in a tornado, and he stuck with that plan on Sunday, taking his dogs in with him. It was the only room of his house left intact after the twister passed through.
When he says he lost everything, he means just about everything; his wallet, his glasses, his prescriptions… everything. After Parker got the water unloaded off the truck, he started looking for someone to give him a ride to a pharmacy.
“My truck is upside down on top of a car,” he said.
Time to check in
In Joplin, communication has been difficult since the tornado, so Nenadal gathered the pastors in her district together on May 25 to check on their immediate congregational and personal needs, discuss relief efforts and provide a brief opportunity for reflection after a time of great stress.
Representatives from the conference’s disaster response team were on hand to share and collect information.
The bishop was scheduled to arrive the next day to meet with them, along with the Rev. Tom Hazelwood, UMCOR’s U.S. disaster response coordinator.
As United Methodists in Joplin assess the damage to their membership, their communities and their city, they are fielding offers of assistance from near and far. “We’re getting calls from all over the nation,” Nenadal reported. “People want to show up tomorrow and work.”
That is not yet possible, but Joplin church members are appreciative. “We’re grateful for our connection and for the support and the prayer coming our way,” Statler said.
*Bloom is a United Methodist News Service multimedia reporter based in New York. Follow her at http://twitter.com/umcscribe. Koenig is the publications editor of the United Methodist Missouri Conference.
News media contact: Linda Bloom, New York, (646) 369-3759 or firstname.lastname@example.org.