Joplin: From Destruction to Grace
June 3, 2011
I’ve learned that sometimes the old adage, “a picture is worth a thousand words” is not adequate. Despite the myriad of pictures I saw on the news channels and in the media, I was completely unprepared for what I saw when I drove into Joplin last Saturday. This is a case where the pictures simply cannot capture the full, expansive extent of the destruction caused by the tornado that cut a wide swath through Joplin, MO on May 15th. It’s difficult to imagine the force of nature that descended on this small town. We arrived nearly a week after the tornado hit and yet it appeared as if it had happened only hours before. The line of destruction is very clear spanning from 19th to 27th streets and then miles long. Most of the buildings are reduced to rubble. The tree limbs are sheared off and in many cases even the bark is gone. It’s as if a giant came through cruelly with a machete carving up a chunk of the town. Or, more descriptively, a nuclear bomb was detonated.
“Oh my God” are the words my partner and I uttered over and over as we saw more and more of the destruction. We cut a weekend visit to Kansas City short to drive the 160 miles due south to Joplin. I watched the news reports the night before detailing the mounting death toll and destruction. I suppose I felt some lingering guilt for not driving down to New Orleans, home of my alma mater, Tulane University, after Katrina hit years ago. Not so this time around, I felt drawn to do something.
Fortunately, my partner was completely on board with altering our plans. Shortly after, I got a Facebook message from a friend headed to Joplin to assist the MCC (Metropolitan Community Church). Danny Gladden listed the supplies they needed – we dashed to Walgreens and purchased everything on the list in quantities.
One of the few welcoming images we saw driving down the main drag in town was the rainbow flag flying above a giant pile of rubble. We soon learned this was the former site of the MCC building. Next, we witnessed nearly a dozen people busily clearing the remains of the church building from the foundation platform. “How can we help?” we asked. “Welcome, we need to clear all the debris to the curb and off the foundation,” a volunteer told us. I was both amazed and proud of the volunteers who had already arrived and evidently already made great progress moving the mangled contents of an entire church to the curb. What resilience! As I joined this effort it was hard not to speculate why all this needed to be done now. I learned the speedy clearing effort would assist the city with removing debris and thereby speed up the re-building process. I certainly did not expect to find a group focused on moving past the tragedy and onto the next steps so soon. After all, there were only a few things to salvage and nothing to clean.
I wondered who these volunteers were. For a moment it seemed as if they were angels that descended from above. They were dripping in sweat from the heat and yet maintained positive, upbeat attitudes. I learned members of the LGBT community, including MCC pastors from St. Louis, Wichita, Kansas City and Omaha drove in to help out. Needless to say, there was a strong sense of family present.
On a break from moving debris, I struck up a conversation with Heath Ross, a volunteer, who was in the Church the moment the tornado hit. Heath described they had just finished bible study and were preparing for the 6pm service to begin when someone said, “Oh, no, a building sign just blew down the street.” In what was no doubt a life saving move, the group instantly concluded they needed to retreat to the church basement. Heath told me he assumed the job of helping all eleven down the steep stairs to the basement.
The task was complicated since a member suffers from a health condition and it took him a longer time to descend below. At just that moment – when the tornado began to bear down on the building – the windows next to the basement stairwell shattered. Heath made the decision to dive face down onto the couch in front of him. “It seemed like an eternity,” is how he described it. Reflecting back he thought it was likely just five minutes of hell. But those brief minutes were enough to completely bring down the entire church building on top of him and one other church member who dove onto the floor. Are you ok?” Heath asked his friend. They both looked around in amazement and awe at the leveled building they knew minutes before as their community church. As they took a second look, they noticed large glass shards embedded into the couch and floor within inches of where they were positioned. “A miracle,” I said in disbelief in hearing his account. I’m generally the skeptic about these types of things, but I was won over. And despite the fact this volunteer nearly lost his life, there he was, days later, helping to rebuild his Church, almost against all odds.
Reverend Steve Urie, the Church Pastor was out there too. He lost everything seemingly: his house was totally destroyed, car totaled and his church reduced to rubble. His resilience and faith was inspiring. The Reverend came through a dark hour and seemed determined to rebuild his life as well as take care of his people.
I heard a report twenty thousand volunteers had arrived to help out. Others reacted like I did. They simply wanted to find a way to help.
I observed a large wooden beam that the tornado caused to pierce one of the walls of the church, as if it had been shot through. It seemed to be a metaphor for the day – the very best in human nature pierce through the very worst type of natural disaster.
I felt sad, energized, humbled and amazed.
The clean-up efforts will continue over the next months and rebuilding will take several years. What can we do? We can remember this community of 50,000 people that swells to nearly 400,000 during a workday and the tremendous effort it will take to pick up the broken pieces and rebuild. We can research and make financial contributions to organizations that will give the money directly to benefit the Joplin community.
It was clear to me that clothes, food and cleaning supplies will only go so far. Money is what they really need as they have a monumental job ahead of them. Sadly, many were already below the poverty line in Joplin. They will be the worst off in this tragedy. We can also help to ensure discrimination against LGBT families by FEMA and other Federal agencies does not occur in the wake of this crisis. Instances of discrimination may be reported directly to HRC by emailing Robin Maril at [email protected].
While the tornado is now behind Joplin, please be mindful to not leave Joplin behind. The need is there and will continue to be there for some time. Please help and continue to help in any way possible – now is the time for more grace.
Our friends at PROMO, Missouri’s statewide LGBT organization, have made giving easy. You may make a contribution here.
The following are photos from Joplin, including the remains of the Metropolitan Community Church (MCC).
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