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INSIDE STORY: In tornado’s aftermath, Missouri church mourns members, counts blessings


JOPLIN, Mo. — Less than three weeks after an EF-5 tornado cut a six-mile swath through this southwestern Missouri community, the 26th and Connecticut Church of Christ assembled inside its damaged building for the first time.
On Wednesday night, amid boxes of relief supplies and trash bags full of donated clothes, about 65 men, women and children squeezed into salvaged pews arranged in a V-shape in the church foyer.
Church members prayed for the victims. They sang hymns such as “My Faith Looks Up to Thee,” “The Church’s One Foundation” and “His Grace Reaches Me.” They exchanged hugs and tears.
As they focused on what was lost in the May 22 storm that claimed 151 lives, including two of the church’s members, the congregation also reflected on what was gained.
“Sometimes, it takes a catastrophic event for people to talk about God and Christ,” elder Doug Douthitt said in his devotional thoughts. “When you talk to your neighbors, tell them how they can have everything — not just the here and now.”
Since the storm poked holes in the auditorium’s roof, the 150-member church has met at a nearby La Quinta Inn on Sundays.
On Wednesday nights — until this week — members gathered to sing and pray under a church awning that overlooks a railroad bridge that may have blocked some flying debris from hitting the church building.
As bad as the tornado was, blessings have come, Douthitt said.
“They’ve got a renewed sense of being,” the elder said of the congregation. “You know, they’ve lost a lot of stuff, but we’ve had so much support from people, and I think the congregation’s kind of gotten a shot in the arm from what’s happening. … I think most everybody, their faith’s been strengthened through this.”
Seven 26th and Connecticut church families lost their homes, as did the families of six regular visitors, leaders said.
Worst of all, two church members were killed: deacon William Austin “Bill” Anderson, 53, who worked for Office Concepts in Joplin for 30 years, and his wife, Sarah Lee Anderson, 46, a secretary at South Middle School in Joplin for 10 years.
The tornado struck on a Sunday evening. Some members already had started to gather for worship. They sought cover — along with a few unexpected visitors — under a stairwell. No one was hurt, but an elder’s car — parked at the church — was destroyed.
Already, repairs have been made to the church’s roof, but the carpet underneath has been stripped. Pew have been removed and taken away for repairs, allowing the auditorium to be transformed into a disaster relief warehouse with boxes stacked high. Insurance should cover the estimated $100,000-plus in damages.

 

A sign that hangs over the baptistery — “Trust and Obey” — survived the mighty winds intact.
Just around the corner from the church, a giant chunk of this city of 50,000 looks like a vast wasteland — plowed into ugly piles of bricks, tree limbs and shredded furniture as far as the eye can see.
The Andersons died at their home. Their son, Quinton, 17, a senior at the high school destroyed by the twister, survived. He’s recovering from surgery on the bone under his eye and will undergo surgery on his leg.
The couple’s daughter, Grace, 22, was not home when the storm hit and suffered no physical harm.
“Bill, he was our deacon in charge of our Bible classes,” Douthitt said. “He would make sure that we had teachers and made sure the material that was taught was Scriptural and in accord with what the Bible teaches.”
Anderson also helped oversee the church’s mission work and spearheaded the congregation’s monthly service at a nursing home.
“He’ll be hard to replace,” Douthitt said. “And he’s got a young man that’s in the hospital, their son Quinton, who’s a real strong Christian boy. He’s done some devos here for us.”
Outside the church building, a sign alerts residents to the free supplies available from Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort Inc., the Nashville, Tenn.-based ministry that dispatches aid to victims across the nation after tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires and floods.
Amid all the heartache, deacon Dale Hoggatt tried to lighten the mood Wednesday night, noting that there’s an oversupply of some items contributed by those eager to help any way they can.
“Everybody, please take some flip-flops with you,” Hoggatt jokingly urged the congregation. “It’s like ‘Foam Finger Night’ at the ballgame.”
Volunteers from at least 17 states have made their way to the 26th and Connecticut church, according to the congregation’s website.
“We will never be able to thank all the hard workers who have come to town,” says a note on the website. “They are working hard at the building helping those coming in need of donations, helping serve meals and organizing donations as they come in. They are also working hard out in the community. They have cleaned up yards, removed trees, put tarps on buildings, helped those in (the) community with their needs, and helped our church families who were in need.”
Donations have ranged from a kindergartner who sent $3.97 in change to a check for $10,000, Douthitt said.
The church elder fumbled for words to describe his emotions as he reflected on the love and support shown by Christians across the nation.
“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.”
North of Joplin, at the Mt. Hope Church of Christ in Webb City, Mo., a similar beehive of relief activity reflects a mammoth effort by volunteers sporting red “Churches of Christ Disaster Response Team” T-shirts.
That ministry, overseen by the Melbourne Church of Christ in Florida, is helping organize relief efforts by the Mt. Hope church. The Mt. Hope building was unharmed by the storm, but about nine member families lost their homes.
At Mt. Hope, teams of volunteers fill grocery sacks, help victims pick out shoes and blankets, prepare meals for chainsaw crews and even provide stuffed animals for children whose families lost all their belongings.
In the kitchen Wednesday afternoon, Karen Fozard, a member of the Carbondale Church of Christ in Illinois, worked 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 Cardondale 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 around the block without crying.
“This is my home. Joplin’s my home,” she said through tears. “I raised my children here. They went to high school here. … So I want to do all I can.”

Bobby Ross Jr. is Managing Editor of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected]

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