Write These Words on Your House: Joplin, MO

It had barely been a week since the tornado hit Joplin, MO. Josh Baird, Director of Disciples Volunteering, and I arrived in Joplin around 10 on Monday morning and found our way to First Christian Church. In the heart of Joplin’s downtown, First Christian was not hit by the tornado, and had generously opened its doors as an emergency refuge immediately following the storm’s passing. Since then, the church’s family life center had been transformed into a center of activity, where donations for the battered but resilient community are collected, sorted, and distributed. We quickly found Fay Blevins, the pastor at First Christian; Jill Cameron Michel, the minister at South Joplin Christian Church; Tyler Whipkey, her student associate; and Michael Weinman, Minister to the Ozark Lakes Area of the Mid-America Region, and gathered together in Fay’s office for a time of prayer, discussion, and brainstorming. It was, as it has been every time I’ve made some sort of pastoral visit following a disaster, humbling.

Jill, Tyler, Fay, and Mike all shared with us the things they had seen over the last week. It was incredible to sit and listen to four pastors, whose words were filled with both worry and wisdom, speak to what it means to minister in a time of such devastation and what a long-term recovery might look like, how to develop local partnerships for responding over the long term, and how we, as Week of Compassion and Disciples Volunteering, could be supportive and help facilitate connections with the wider church and resources for long-term recovery. We spent time with a few church members who, like the pastors, spoke of a deep love for their community as they described the ways they were pitching in—whether that meant searching through debris for loved ones and strangers, or whether that meant organizing the volunteers who showed up with baked goods, bottled water, and bags of clothes to donate.

Then we headed out. The devastation was incredible. “Matchsticks and splinters,” were the words that Josh used to describe the houses shredded by the tornado’s vast path of destruction: a path that worked its way northeast from the southwestern edge of Joplin. Some houses were still standing, and I saw on many of them the haunting spray-painted symbols that I first encountered in areas of New Orleans affected by Hurricane Katrina.

The quick tags left by rescue crews to mark what crew has searched which house and what--or who--they have found tell brief, quick, sometimes painful stories: 

“3 Bodies Found”
“2 Animals Safe”
“All Clear.”

As we traveled streets once wooded, now bare, and I saw those—and other markings...

“God Bless Joplin”
“Thank You!”
and a simple

...my mind went back to the Shema, perhaps the central prayer in morning and evening prayers in Judaism, recorded in Deuteronomy 6:

Hear, O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.

Driving around and seeing response teams and volunteers from all over the country, made up of everyone from Mennonites to Muslims, I began to conflate the sacred words of covenant and care found in the Torah and written on one’s doorpost with the words cast across brick and plywood in Joplin, because amidst all that destruction, those symbols and spontaneous outpourings of hope and care seemed prayerful. There was something sacred about that spray paint.

We made our way to South Joplin Christian Church, which stood at the northern limit of the storm’s path. South Joplin had lost a roof and sustained significant damage, but was a flurry of activity as the restoration crew provided by their insurance company gutted rooms, pulled up carpet, and made plans for repair. In a Sunday School room, scrawled on a blackboard for what must have been a lesson on the Psalms just hours before the tornado hit, were the words “O GIVE THANKS TO THE LORD; CALL ON HIS NAME”

An unintended but serendipitous prayer for Joplin. Gratitude and hope amidst tragedy. Resilience marked in spray paint and chalk. 

Thanks, indeed, to God.


What Can I Do to Help Joplin?

While many of the needs in Joplin are vast, donations need to be targeted. Bottled water and clothing, for example, are no longer being collected, as distribution centers are stocked beyond capacity. We will be working with First Christian and South Joplin to meet strategic needs in Joplin. Donations to the Compassion Response Fund and Designated Tornado Funding will be used not only in the immediate response, but also to support long-term recovery efforts in Joplin, whatever shape those take. You can always respond online.

I Want to Volunteer!

Joplin is inundated with volunteers. Disciples Volunteering is not currently scheduling volunteers, but is exploring long-term response in both Joplin and Tuscaloosa-Birmingham, Alabama. While it may be frustrating to not have a mechanism for responding in a hands-on way at this stage in disaster response, the work of DV is targeted:  long after the media’s attention has waned, we work to respond. Whether it is in Nashville, Lake Charles, or Cedar Rapids, Disciples may not be the first to arrive, but we always strive to be among the last to leave. Josh Baird’s advice rings as true in Joplin as it does in the wake of other disasters. If you have questions, don’t hesitate to contact Disciples Volunteering or Week of Compassion.

This Week's Responses

Missouri, tornado relief and recovery
Montana, flood relief
Japan, earthquake/tsunami
Libya, crisis
Haiti, housing reconstruction
Louisiana, pastoral care
Oklahoma, tornado relief