Breaking down barriers — new and old — to help tornado victims
MAYFIELD, Ky. — Before the tornado, Penny Wade Smith grew…
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — Josh Kasinger lived in Houston for 16 years.
He gained plenty of experience helping after hurricanes.
But the disaster he experienced Friday was different.
Kasinger, who moved to Arkansas in 2019, sought shelter in his basement when an EF3 tornado hit the Little Rock area.
The strongest twister to strike the capital city since 1999 damaged or destroyed thousands of homes — including his own.
“I looked out the window, and I saw doors and debris flying, and I knew at that moment something was not right,” said Kasinger, the worship and executive minister at the Pleasant Valley Church of Christ in Little Rock. “So I ran down into the basement and got into a safe.”
Despite the noise and debris, “I didn’t think anything would be that big of a deal,” said the worship minister, who previously served the Bammel Church of Christ in Houston from 2012 to 2019. But when he returned from the basement, “I saw the devastation in a matter of seconds.” Trees were uprooted, and part of his neighbor’s roof was in his living room.
His family, thankfully, was safe at work and school. They had moved into the North Little Rock house just three weeks earlier and were still unpacking.
Pleasant Valley’s preaching minister, Jonathan Storment, huddled with his family in their home’s basement during the tornado.
Watching the weather coverage on TV, “I saw the news vans pull into our parking lot, and they were showing the storm coming toward it,” Storment said. Still, he figured that the church building might lose a few shingles.
Then, as he saw the funnel cloud start to descend, “I was like, ‘This is not good.’ That’s when it became real for me.”
The funnel cloud missed the church building itself — where about 200 children from the Central Arkansas Christian Schools district and a day school were situated — by only about 100 yards, Storment said.
It was a close call during a Friday afternoon that brought severe weather to millions of Americans.
Multiple tornadoes pummeled 11 states in the South and Midwest, claiming at least 32 lives. One of the tornadoes touched down in Little Rock around 2:25 p.m. and moved quickly to the suburb of Jacksonville, Ark., damaging about 2,648 structures and injuring at least 50 people in the area. One death in Little Rock was also recorded.
As the storms passed, Kasinger checked on neighbors. He saw a truck stuck beneath a tree. The driver was pinned inside. The man’s head was cocked at a 90-degree angle. Blood spewed.
“All I could do was just say, ‘Jesus is near, and the ambulance is on its way,’” Kasinger said. “That probably was the most traumatic for me individually to see someone where I couldn’t do anything to help.”
Kasinger stayed with the driver until a fire truck and ambulance arrived to take the man to a hospital. The minister has not heard any updates about the man’s condition but hopes to get in touch.
Cynthia Delameter was visiting her 99-year-old mother, Mary Button, a founding member of Pleasant Valley, from Arizona during the storm. They were watching news of the tornado on television when the power suddenly went out.
“Then I looked out that window,” said the 72-year-old daughter, pointing at a window behind her mother in their now tornado-damaged home. “I could see this thing moving like this” — she moved the palm of her hand sideways, imitating the tornado’s approach — “and I said, ‘Oh, I guess we better take this seriously.’”
Related: Volunteer State
Related: Volunteer State
Delameter immediately lifted her mother into a wheelchair and moved into a hallway. After the tornado passed, she saw the occurring damage and realized falling trees were trapping them inside the house. A branch from a falling tree had also punctured the ceiling of the daughter’s bedroom.
When Delameter showed Button the back yard, her mother had one response.
“She looked at me and said, ‘It’s your turn to sweep the deck,’” Delameter recalled, laughing.
Across the Arkansas River from Pleasant Valley, members of the Levy Church of Christ in North Little Rock immediately answered the call to help families in surrounding neighborhoods with tarps and cleaning supplies.
With all of the hurt going on, it is important for the church to show love, preaching minister Danny Dodd said.
“We have an alternative story to it, which is a story of redemption — we’re not just stuck in the brokenness,” Dodd said. “With the folks who are hurting out there, we just need to be present. We need to serve, we need to be present, and we need to be faithful.”
Anyone with a willingness to help and equipment to do so rushed to the scene after the storm hit. Dodd said he had been in contact with several churches around the area, and the number of congregations ready to help was encouraging. Nashville, Tenn.-based Churches of Christ Disaster Relief Effort also arrived with emergency food boxes and supplies.
“It’s terrible, but God’s people are out,” Dodd said.
Even just owning a chainsaw or any other useful equipment was enough to get a person out on the scene to help. Zeke Gustafson, a Levy member, said he hadn’t had time to think since the storm hit because he was working nonstop to help those in need.
“I have a chainsaw, so I’m going to go out and start using it,” he said. “I would say that is what encompasses a lot of what the people here are doing.”
Members of the Pleasant Valley congregation and neighbors from the surrounding area also came forward to help.
Jimmy Cone, one of the church’s elders, led a breakout group after a short Sunday service to share important information and to spell out all of the moving parts of the relief efforts. No one person is in charge of the church’s efforts to help the community, he said. It is a collective volunteer effort.
“We will stumble over a lot of things, but we will serve a lot of people while we do that.”
“We will stumble over a lot of things, but we will serve a lot of people while we do that,” Cone said. “The goal of this is to be able to meet them with the love of Jesus.”
Pleasant Valley has received help from various disaster relief organizations. Christians from the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ in West Monroe, La., where Kasinger interned in college, came to work on the worship minister’s house, allowing Pleasant Valley members to help others in the area.
Immediately after Sunday morning worship, volunteers grilled hot dogs in the parking lot and bagged them up to take to families and first responders. Church members also prepared an interview process to assess individual needs in the community.
“What I’ve heard overall is people willing to help and people willing to receive help,” Cone said.
With Easter Sunday just a few days away, churches must prepare for a much different year of celebrating the resurrection of Jesus.
Easter egg hunts and chocolate bunnies will not be the sole focus this year, as communities in Little Rock will still be recovering from hurt and loss.
Ministers in Little Rock and in other areas that were affected now have more than the story of Jesus to share with their congregations — they have the story of hope in the midst of loss and uncertainty.
“I’m kind of redoing everything I was planning on,” said Dodd, the Levy minister. “Without the resurrection, there would be no redemption. The resurrection represents new and old and fresh starts. The resurrection is an opportunity to restart, to have a different perspective, to see the power of God working.”
Storment, the Pleasant Valley preacher, is waiting to see God’s glory.
“God brings dead things to life,” Storment said. “That’s the thing God is always doing. It seems like when stuff like this happens, God tends to show out. His activity is always easier to see in hindsight than it is in real time, and so I think God is up to something, and I can’t wait to see what that is.”
“It seems like when stuff like this happens, God tends to show out. His activity is always easier to see in hindsight than it is in real time, and so I think God is up to something, and I can’t wait to see what that is.”
Kasinger, meanwhile, said he’s praying for God’s will to be done.
“I know God will create opportunities for restoration both physical and spiritual,” he said.
GABRIEL GRANT HUFF and TIANE DAVIS are multimedia journalism students at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. Huff served as The Christian Chronicle’s intern during summer 2022, and Davis will be the Chronicle’s intern during summer 2023.
To share more news related to the recent tornadoes, email Editor-in-Chief Bobby Ross Jr. at [email protected].
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