COVID-19 challenges Christian relief ministries’ response to spring tornadoes
After an EF3 tornado slammed into Jonesboro, Ark., on March…
Hours after Easter Sunday tornadoes walloped the twin cities of Monroe and West Monroe in northeastern Louisiana, Ryan Lee came home from working with a chainsaw crew.
The mask intended to protect him from the novel coronavirus dangled around his neck.
“Well, did you wear your mask when you were out today?” Miranda Lee asked her husband, who leads One Kingdom, a ministry that focuses on mission work and disaster relief.
“A tornado just came through here. Nobody’s thinking about that,” replied Ryan Lee, whose work is sponsored by the White’s Ferry Road Church of Christ, the couple’s home congregation in West Monroe. “We’re just trying to get trees off houses.”
Miranda Lee, an ICU nurse who treats COVID-19 patients at the Monroe Medical Center, gently reminded him that the virus threat had not disappeared in the April 12 storm.
Already, she was feeling crummy — with coughing, shortness of breath and a low-grade fever — and worrying that she might have been infected herself.
Tension and frustration characterized the exchange as the Christian couple tried to balance concern for their family’s safety with a shared desire to help hurting people.
“I wanted him to be protected, and he was worried about others,” Miranda Lee recalled.
Ryan and Miranda Lee, both 39, met as students at Harding University in Searcy, Ark.
He majored in business. She studied nursing. Both graduated in 2002.
They moved to West Monroe — where she grew up in the White’s Ferry Road church — in 2007.
They have two sons: Isaac, 8, and Harrison, 5.
Ryan Lee worked as a wealth management adviser for Merrill Lynch before becoming director of One Kingdom, which formed with the 2017 merger of WFR Relief and World Radio.
A registered nurse for 17 years, Miranda Lee is pursuing nurse practitioner credentials. She expects to receive her Master of Science in Nursing degree from the University of Louisiana at Monroe in May.
“They are both very diligent to stay healthy as well as continue to meet the needs of others spiritually as well as physically,” said Mike Kellett, the White’s Ferry Road church’s senior minister. “I couldn’t be prouder of both of them.”
While enrolled in graduate school, Miranda Lee has worked two shifts a week in the Monroe Medical Center’s intensive care unit.
Until she started feeling ill herself, those shifts put her in close contact with coronavirus patients, who can’t receive visitors because of COVID-19’s highly contagious nature.
“It’s just been sad and heartbreaking to see these patients come in alone. You know, suffering and not having their families beside them.”
“It’s just really been overwhelming,” Miranda Lee said. “It’s just been sad and heartbreaking to see these patients come in alone. You know, suffering and not having their families beside them.”
The hospital limits nurses’ time in patients’ rooms.
But sometimes, Miranda Lee said, her Christian faith demands that she stay longer.
She described going into one patient’s room to play a video that the woman’s family had made.
“As a Christian, I’m thinking that if that was my mom lying there in a bed, I’d want the nurse to play that video of me praying over her and saying Scripture to her,” Miranda Lee said. “Even if she was sedated on a ventilator, I’d want her to hear her grandkids telling her about their day.”
But away from the hospital, mental fatigue sets in.
“It’s stressful,” she said. “You’re wondering: Are you bringing it home to your family? Are you protecting yourself enough at the hospital? There are just so many things at play.”
Monroe is the seat of Ouachita Parish, where three tornadoes hit about lunchtime on Easter Sunday, damaging or destroying more than 450 homes, according to the National Weather Service.
No one died, and Louisiana Gov. John Bel Edwards called the lack of serious injuries a miracle, the Monroe News-Star reported.
With no safe room in his house, Ernie Heckford, a lifelong Southern Baptist, bowed his head and prayed that God would protect his family, he told The Christian Chronicle.
Heckford, his wife and adult son — joined by their dogs — buckled up in a vehicle inside the family’s garage, hoping that might offer an extra layer of security.
After the storm passed, Heckford emerged from the garage to find the power knocked out and pecan trees snapped in pieces all over his yard, one leaning hard against his roof.
Chad Johnson, Heckford’s boss with Graphic Packaging International, called to see if Heckford could help clean up tornado debris at the West Monroe paper mill.
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But Heckford explained the mess at his own house, and Johnson told him to focus on that.
A member of the White’s Ferry Road church, Johnson immediately called Ryan Lee. The mill superintendent knew a One Kingdom chainsaw crew was mobilizing and minutes away from Heckford’s neighborhood.
“It was just a blessing all the way around.”
“It was just a blessing all the way around,” Heckford said of the half-dozen volunteers who showed up.
The team cleared the trees in less than four hours — a task Heckford said would have taken him and his son days.
One Kingdom has performed the same job after past disasters, such as the deadly twister that struck Cookeville, Tenn., on March 3.
But the risk was different this time.
“We’re trying to send teams out in groups of six or less,” Ryan Lee said. “Everybody has to wear masks and gloves, which, if I’m being honest, is hard to police.
“You know, you’re running chainsaws and all that stuff,” he added. “But everyone’s doing their best to maintain their social distance.”
Ryan Lee describes himself as a “touchy-feely guy.”
“I’m big on affection,” he said.
At disaster sites, he loves nothing more than gathering everyone — residents and volunteers — in a tight circle and praying arm in arm.
At Heckford’s house, he knew he couldn’t do that.
The group prayed but without the normal touching.
“I’ve got a freezer full of fish, and we’re going to have a big old fish fry when this virus is over.”
“I don’t want to fib and tell you that we all had yardsticks between us,” Ryan Lee said. “But we refrained from laying on hands.”
As the crew prepared to leave, Heckford promised he’d invite the volunteers back after the COVID-19 threat.
“I’ve got a freezer full of fish, and we’re going to have a big old fish fry when this virus is over,” the homeowner said he told them. “We’re going to talk about it and laugh about it, and we’re going to eat some fish.”
Miranda Lee got tested for COVID-19, but her result came back negative.
She doesn’t know if she got a “false negative” — which experts cite in 5 percent to 30 percent of cases — or if she came down with something different.
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“There are so many other viruses, and it’s allergy season in Louisiana,” she said. “So I could be run-down because I’m in grad school, and we’re homeschooling our boys and working from home, you know. Who knows?”
In any case, her fever has broken, and she has started feeling better.
Ryan Lee remains busy with the tornado relief effort.
Besides leading One Kingdom, he’s coordinating with Samaritan’s Purse, an evangelical humanitarian aid group that is organizing volunteers out of the White’s Ferry Road church’s parking lot.
And he’s doing his best to keep his wife happy by taking necessary precautions to avoid COVID-19.
“It’s not ideal,” he said of no hugs or handshakes. “But loads of work is still getting done, and relationships are still being forged.”
BOBBY ROSS JR. is Editor-in-Chief of The Christian Chronicle. Reach him at [email protected].
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