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OPINION | PRESTON JONES: Churches mattered

In aftermath of Joplin tornado by Preston Jones Special to the Democrat-Gazette | May 21, 2022 at 3:04 a.m.

Eleven years ago this coming Sunday evening, we began to hear about devastation in Joplin, Mo. No one who saw the aftermath of the EF-5 storm that swept through that city can forget it.

Before I went to Joplin the first time a month after, I vowed not to use the cliché about the place looking as if a nuclear bomb had gone off, but that imagery ended up being impossible to avoid. To see the mind-boggling destruction was to be surprised that the tragic count of 161 lost in the storm wasn't much higher.

Stories abound of residents taking shelter in closets only to discover that the closet was all that remained of the house. Multiple children later spoke of "butterfly people"--usually interpreted as angels--who protected residents during the storm.

By the morning of May 23, 2011, the churches and para-church organizations of Joplin and the region were responding. Russ Hibbard, a pastor at Calvary Chapel in Joplin, survived the storm with his son inside a demolished Walmart supercenter. Others died nearby. The word "traumatic" didn't do the experience justice, but within 24 hours he and fellow church members were setting up in the parking lot of a destroyed Walgreens, providing food and other necessities to others. This went on for months.

Pastor Brad Graves lived north of the tornado's path while his church, Calvary Baptist, was south of it. Traveling from home to church, he saw the immediate result of the tornado. The church became a response operations center. The same was true for College Heights Christian Church, where at the time Jay St. Clair was pastor of community outreach.

The day after the tornado, Luke Dittrich arrived in St. Louis planning to write a profile of rock legend Chuck Berry for Esquire magazine. He soon changed plans and went to Joplin, spending his first nights in a church and helping with cleanup while starting research for a powerful article that would be published in October.

The aftermath of the Joplin tornado illustrates the phenomenon of "spontaneous order." Amazingly complicated tasks were carried out by myriad people and organizations without anyone really being in charge. Napoleonic armies mobilized without a Napoleon. Ordinary people did what they could and collaborated.

National news channels emphasized President Barack Obama's visit to Joplin, and certainly he gave a powerful address. But not a single Joplin resident I've spoken with has ever mentioned it. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) soon came on the scene and provided crucial housing, though few Joplin survivors and community members speak of it.

But they rarely fail to recall the support from individuals and private organizations that immediately blanketed the town.

A man I spoke with last week in Joplin said his parents' home was rebuilt by "a group of Mennonites"--strangers who seemed to come from nowhere. Convoy of Hope, a relief organization based in Springfield, mobilized. Devin Chance, current director of Life of Hope Ministries, led church groups to help. Pastor Russ of Calvary Chapel speaks of a master griller from Texas who voluntarily cooked ribs and other dishes for townspeople and responders in the Walgreens parking lot. Other volunteers specialized in sharpening chainsaws and fixing flat tires.

Pastor Graves recalls a congregation of aid-minded motorcyclists setting up shop on his church's property. The day after the storm, Ron Maines of northwest Arkansas volunteered to take point for World Vision's work in Joplin. John Carmack, a professor at John Brown University, organized efforts to respond to storm-related mental health challenges. Multiple groups from JBU spent time in Joplin helping with clean up.

Not all who responded to the Joplin tornado were Christian. One meal I had while on break from clearing rubble was provided by Sikhs from Kansas City. And some responders were secular--the "Extreme Makeover: Home Edition" television show crew being a prominent example.

But everyone who experienced the aftermath of the tornado saw the same thing. Government at all levels played important roles, but the Joplin response was overwhelmingly the work of individuals and groups acting on behalf of churches and para-church organizations.

Eleven years ago, the force of nature that devastated Joplin was met by an inspiring and perhaps historically unique human counterforce of helpfulness actuated primarily by Christian commitment. The churches mattered.

Preston Jones lives in Siloam Springs and is compiling an oral history of the Joplin tornado. See the website Survivors, community members and responders can reach him at

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