WEBB CITY, Mo. — The Joplin tornado’s path of destruction can be seen all along Range Line Road, where a Home Depot, Walmart and other businesses lie in ruins.
Yellow “Caution” tape and shreds of wood flutter in the breeze amid bulldozers clearing debris and smashed vehicles abandoned after the May 22 twister that claimed 158 lives and left thousands homeless.
Drive a little farther, though, and a different scene unfolds.
“Disaster relief distribution,” say the bold black letters on a portable sign pointing residents two blocks off the main road to the Mt. Hope Church of Christ in Webb City, just north of Joplin.
In the shadow of the church’s white steeple, cases of bottled water are stacked outside the family life center, alongside boxes of all-purpose cleaner and diapers.
Inside the building, volunteers sporting red “Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team” T-shirts fill grocery sacks, help victims pick out shoes and blankets, prepare meals for chainsaw crews and provide stuffed animals for children whose families lost all their belongings.
While nine member families’ homes were destroyed, the twister’s path bypassed the Mt. Hope building. As a result, the church quickly became a hub for relief efforts.
In the kitchen, Karen Fozard, a member of the Carbondale Church of Christ in Illinois, works alongside Joy Cole, a Mt. Hope member for 38 years.
“Our congregation has a heart to help,” said Fozard, who drove six-plus hours to Joplin, joined by Carbondale preacher’s wife Becky Shaffer and Shaffer’s children, Jacob, 15, and Caroline, 12.
For Cole, the relief effort is more personal. She can barely drive down Range Line Road without crying.
“This is my home. Joplin is my home,” Cole said through tears. “I had my children here. They went to high school here,” she added, noting that the tornado blew away the school. “So I want to do all I can.”
‘THE ONES WHO REALLY CAME THROUGH’
It’s a scene repeated over and over: A devastating storm strikes a community. A Church of Christ steps up to help in a big way — with assistance from fellow Christians near and far.
• It happened in April when tornadoes killed 24 in North Carolina.
The Brooks Avenue Church of Christ in Raleigh joined with relief ministries and volunteers from area congregations to distribute food and supplies.
• It happened later that month when twisters killed more than 300 and injured thousands across the South.
Despite losing its own building, the Central Church of Christ in Tuscaloosa, Ala., launched a long-term relief effort that has provided 40,000 hot meals to victims and relief workers.
Mike Baumgartner with Disaster Assistance CoC, sponsored by the Lake Jackson Church of Christ in Texas, oversees the feeding project.
This summer, the Central church expects to host 2,000 volunteers — many from youth groups. The volunteers’ backbreaking task: moving mountains of debris to residents’ curbsides.
“I had a woman with no connection to the church say, ‘Of all the people, the Church of Christ are the ones who really came through,’” Central campus minister Trae Durden said. “That was encouraging to me.”
• It happened in June when twisters hit Massachusetts, killing three and damaging hundreds of properties.
Almost immediately, Gareth Flanary, minister of the 50-member West Springfield Church of Christ, received a message from Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort in Nashville, Tenn., asking if the community needed help.
Within two days, a semi-truckload full of food, water, cleaning supplies and baby products arrived at the Massachusetts church building, less than two miles from where the tornado struck.
The delivery came on the heels of the Nashville ministry sending 51 tractor-trailers with emergency items to 39 cities in 11 states during April and May.
“Not only were we able to get the supplies quickly, we were surprised by how we were able to mobilize volunteers,” Flanary said.
“All of our members have just been energized,” he added. “It’s given them a vision of what we can do as a church within the community.”
SHOWING CHRIST AMID THE CHAOS
Back in Joplin, donations poured in to the 26th and Connecticut Church of Christ, ranging from a kindergartner who sent $3.97 to a check for $10,000.
Elder Doug Douthitt fumbled for words to describe the love and support shown by Christians.
“It’s just kind of mind-boggling … my little check that I send to New Orleans or Tuscaloosa,” he said. “You know, now it’s happening to me. And it’s just overwhelming.”
At the Mt. Hope church, the Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team, sponsored by the Melbourne Church of Christ in Florida, helps organize volunteers.
Despite the inevitable chaos after a disaster, most congregations respond in a remarkable way, said team leader Mark Cremeans, who came to Joplin after working in Raleigh and Tuscaloosa.
“It’s a normal thing that a congregation that’s never done this before, they’re going to do their best,” said Cremeans, a whiteboard behind him covered with names of churches planning trips to Joplin, along with dates and numbers of volunteers expected.
“Without going through it as many times as we have, they have no idea where to start,” he added. “We bring in the knowledge of being able to come in and set up a relief effort and help them run it.”
A beehive of activity reflects the mammoth effort by the Mt. Hope church.
Donna Griffith and other volunteers transformed church classrooms into shoe, clothing and toy stores — only with the items given away for free.
“The rubble is starting to be discarded and cleaned up, and we’re now into the grieving stage,” said Griffith, a longtime Joplin resident and Mt. Hope member. “The funerals are happening and all, but people are starting to find a place to live and move ahead, and so we’re starting to see them pour into here.”
Eight-year-old Khali smiled as she came to a classroom filled with dolls, stuffed animals, bubbles and other toys.
The tornado destroyed her family’s home, and her parents, James and Tawnjia Johnson, said they were grateful for the church’s help.
“We were kind of amazed at how many donations came in and how many people came to help,” Tawnjia Johnson said. “It’s overwhelming.”
YOUNG AND OLD USE THEIR TALENTS
Delbert Towell, 72, and his wife, Helen, members of the University Church of Christ in Abilene, Texas, are Sojourners who travel the country in their recreational vehicle and help congregations, church camps and Christian schools.
“People were hurting here. I, like everyone else, have a little bit of talent that I don’t want to bury,” said Delbert Towell, who joined a chainsaw crew.
Jill Adams, a member of the Hooker Church of Christ in the Oklahoma Panhandle, has family ties to Joplin. She and daughters Makiah, 16, and Kaylee, 10, drove seven hours to volunteer.
“We just wanted to be able to help any way we could,” the mother said as she and the girls sorted canned goods.
It’s exhausting physical labor — not exactly the way middle-school teacher Sarah Craig planned to spend her summer vacation.
But the reaction from victims when volunteers roll out carts full of groceries eases any weariness that sets in, the Mt. Hope member said.
“Sometimes, it’s pretty emotional because people see us come out with the carts, and they just, the tears start flowing,” Craig said. “It’s very humbling, but it’s uplifting at the same time.”