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Its Sanctuary Blown Away, and Without Several Members, Joplin Church Prays for Healing


As the city of Joplin begins the long, slow road to recovery following the powerful tornado that ripped through on May 22nd, its churches are providing emotional and spiritual support to people who lost almost everything. As KSMU’s Jennifer Moore reports, one church is trying to serve those around it, even though its own building was in the heart of the tornado damage.

Aaron Brown, pastor of St. Paul’s United Methodist Church, was at home huddled in the basement with his wife and two daughters when the tornado struck.

“Right afterwards, I got a call from one of our church members who is a neighbor over here, saying ‘It’s bad. Half the church is gone.’ And that’s when I got in my car and drove as far as I could to get up here,” he says.

The roads were barricaded with debris. He stepped out of his car, and like a shepherd trying to account for members of his flock, he began sprinting through the neighborhood, asking who was unaccounted for. He knew that many of these splintered homes belonged to his church members.

He and others jumped over downed power lines, and climbed over gigantic trees and upside-down cars, which littered what were once streets.

“I just started running with people who were running along 26th Street here. And so I ran with one couple. They were like, ‘My mom is is one of these houses here. And [I asked], ‘Where’s she live?’ And they [said], ‘We can’t tell,’” he recalls.

He encountered dead bodies and rescuers digging for survivors.

Eventually, Brown saw his church building: its enormous sanctuary was almost completely wiped away, and the bell tower stood alone. But the children’s wing remained…and within a few hours, it was functioning as a triage center. The wounded starting showing up. Some staff members from St. John’s Regional Medical Center, the hospital destroyed by the tornado, began setting broken bones and performing emergency surgeries.

84 families in this church congregation alone lost their homes completely. Six church members died, ranging from ages 18 to 94. When I met up with Aaron Brown at the site of his church building on 26th Street, he had already taken part in four funerals that week.

Moore: “So this is where the sanctuary used to be?”
Brown: “Yeah. This is our worship center, or where it used to be.”
Moore: “I’m assuming they don’t prepare you for something like this in Seminary.”
Moore: “No, no…I missed that class. What prepared us as a church for this is our mission. Our mission is to love God, love others, and serve the world. And so when this hit, people were ready to say, ‘Okay, how do I live out this mission in this context, in the middle of this tragedy?’ A lot of those people were the ones who invited the folks who lost homes into their homes. They have been the folks with chainsaws clearing out other people, the folks who are there picking through belongings. So the mission was in our people long before the storm hit, and prepared us for that.”

Brown says it was important for his wounded congregation to meet the first Sunday after the tornado, despite no longer having a building. A youth center called “The Bridge” offered its facilities, and Sunday morning, Brown’s beleaguered church members started to trickle in, awash with emotion.

"People crying, laughing, being together, loving on one another. You know, all of those reunions that people really sought after,” he said.

The next week, the church met in the chapel of Ozark Christian College, where they’re still holding services. Before the tornado, the church was averaging around 900 people each Sunday, in five different services.

One of those attending is Joe Crossthwait, an attorney who was with his wife, daughter, and son-in-law in the center of their home when the tornado hit. His three story house was completely destroyed. He said the sounds were a mix of glass shattering, his house tearing apart, his shouts for his loved ones to keep their heads down, his wife and daughter screaming, his dogs going crazy, and his son-in-law shouting the name of Jesus.

“I have always not paid much attention to the storm warnings. I have never seen a tornado. I’ve been through this one. I saw the roof and the ceiling zipper away as if Spielberg directed it,” he said.

Joe said his faith has strengthened, not diminished, as a result of the tragedy. Part of that, he says, is due to the outpouring of kindness that followed the storm. And part of it is about perspective.

“It’s cliché. You realize what’s important. And it’s not the pool. It’s not the things hanging on the wall. It’s not all those old newspaper clippings, all those things you thought were important, all those old photographs. That stuff can just be gone with the wind, and I don’t care. But the thing that is rock solid and that is still there is my loved ones, [and] my faith…because that’s what’s gonna sustain me when it’s all done,” he said.

Pastor Aaron Brown said once church members get over the adrenaline rush and move out of problem-solving mode, some will need to seek the counseling of their pastor.

“I think, for most people that I’ve talked to, their faith has really been strengthened through this, as they’ve seen people just live out love, and live out kindness, and serve one another. But I also know I have friends who are asking those questions about ‘Why did God let this happen?’ Or, ‘Why did God do this?’ And, you know, we just walk with those questions. And it’s okay to ask them, and it’s okay wrestle with that,” Brown said.

I ask him how he as a pastor answers that question to himself at night.

"My answer to the question, ‘Where was God?’ is: we see God everywhere. We see God in the miracles that have happened through this. [We see God in] the miracle that, although it’s tragic that 151 people lost their lives, but it could have been thousands; the miracle that this didn’t happen while school was in session, and hundreds or thousands of children would have lost their lives; that it didn’t happen on a Sunday morning when the 13 churches that were destroyed [would have been] full of people. I think those are the miracles where we see God. The promise of God isn’t that ‘I’m gonna keep the storms from happening around you.’ The promise of God is that ‘I’ll be with you through those storms,’” he said.

This young pastor says he’s cried more than a few times, often at random moments, like when he’s driving through the six miles of rubble left by the twister.

He says the tornado has made his church members reflect on their belief that the church never was four walls and a roof; instead, he says, it’s a living body. And despite that they mourn at the gravesides of their fellow believers, they’re finding comfort in their belief that this torn and tattered landscape is not their final home.

For KSMU News, I’m Jennifer Moore in Joplin.