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A cross is carved into a tree stump after deadly tornadoes swept across Kentucky and other states in December.
Photo by Steve Johnson

An easel and a cross

Disaster relief volunteer reflects on the images that will stick with him.

BENTON, Ky. — Every disaster area offers a blend of devastation and healing, of heartbreak and hope. Every day, God presents the volunteer with a person, an image or a story. Each random, unexpected blessing is an antidote for the poisonous, soul-crushing environment you find yourself in.

Recently, on our first day working in Marshall County, Ky., God offered two images that struck home.

First, the easel. Around 10 p.m. on Dec. 10, a young girl and her family huddled in the basement as a nearly 250-mile long, EF4 tornado ripped apart their home and wreaked havoc across her native Kentucky and multiple other states. 

A message of hope is written on a tornado survivor’s easel.

A message of hope is written on a tornado survivor’s easel.

The 190-mph winds took the lives of more than 90 souls, including 77 in Kentucky, and left more than 125 injured. 

Thankfully, the girl, her autistic brother and her mother were spared. Her father, tragically, had died two weeks prior from a heart attack while sitting in his recliner the day after Thanksgiving. 

The girl and her family emerged from the rubble and walked through the ruins of their family compound the following day. 

Only one of the girl’s possessions remained intact and unscathed: an easel. I don’t know what it was like for her to stand in a debris-littered yard with nothing but the clothes on her back, holding her only remaining possession. 

I suppose she was forever changed.

Had the story ended there, that would be enough. A young tornado victim being reunited with her easel is the hope among heartbreak, the healing among devastation. Remarkably, the young girl had something more in mind. 

She donated the easel to her church — the people who were busy helping her family and other storm victims. “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus once said (Matthew 18:3).

The young girl’s easel is among the first things seen by church members and relief workers upon entering the Walnut Grove Church of Christ’s fellowship hall. It contains a message of hope for all who enter: “God’s got this.” 

For those who know the backstory, the easel represents something more. It reminds us of a little girl who gave up her only possession. She gave us her all.

That brings us to the second image. 

While knocking doors and assessing needs on Benton’s Carriage Lane, my friend Donna and I walked by a property with no door to knock, bell to ring or window to tap. All that remains is the home’s foundation and a tree stump. In insurance terms, this is a “total loss.”

Related: After Mayfield tornado, some stories inspire

Upon closer examination, though, we found something else. Whoever had cut up the downed tree had gone to the trouble to carve a cross from its trunk. 

Yes, on the south end of Carriage Lane, on a foundation with everything else blown away, all that remains is a cross.

Like the easel, that cross will stick with me for, well, maybe forever.  

Long after my home in Tennessee is gone, the cross will remain.

Long after my life savings are spent or passed on, the cross will remain.

“Long after my prized possessions are rendered useless, the cross will remain.”

Long after my prized possessions are rendered useless, the cross will remain.

Long after my physical body has returned to dust, the cross will remain.

Long after a life spent pursuing, acquiring and becoming, Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection are all that will remain. 

The easel and the cross. The healing and the hope. The first of many gifts to be unwrapped in the Benton/Mayfield disaster area. 

All because of a girl who gave all that she had.

And a Savior who gave even more.

STEVE JOHNSON is a writer, long-distance hiker and Sojourner. He grew up in a military family and served 23 years in the Air Force, retiring as a colonel in 2011. He worships with the Eastside Church of Christ in Maryville, Tenn.

Benton, KY, USA

Filed under: deadly tornado disaster assistance disaster relief Insight Kentucky tornadoes Mayfield tornado Opinion Perspective Top Stories

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