Joplin-area Episcopalians pick up and reach out

June 2, 2011

Ramona Shields picked through what remains of her tornado-ravaged house in Joplin, Missouri, trying to find something intact from her 25 years there.

There were a few things -- some dishes and glassware, soggy books and newspaper clippings, some pictures and a family heirloom mirror hanging on living room walls left shaky and roofless.

Eight days after the monster EF-5 tornado ripped through her southwest Missouri hometown, Shields was stoic in the face of devastation that spread as far as one could see. Wearing a T-shirt with the name of her church, St. Philip's Episcopal, and a cap with the Episcopal shield, she said she was determined to get things cleaned up so she and her husband, Hugh, could start to rebuild.

But this time, she said, they'd have a storm shelter.

Like almost all of the houses in Joplin, where the water table is high and the soil very rocky, hers didn't have a basement. So the couple huddled in a corner of their recently remodeled bathroom with their four cats and Maggie, their dog, covered themselves with towels, and listened while the house came down around them.

"It was awful," she said. "It was breaking apart. You could tell."

After the tornado had passed, they emerged to find the back wall of the kitchen blown away. They now could see St. John's Medical Center, blocks away, since the houses and trees that stood between them simply were gone.

"It was just carnage," she said, describing her first glimpse of her neighborhood. "I turned around" -- where she saw the now-open front of her house -- "and it was more carnage."

The two then set out to check on neighbors and the status of the six rental properties they had nearby. That's when they found the body of a young man lying in the street, someone Shields said they often saw jogging on his way to work.

They checked on the women who rented the house across the street from them, where Shields' parents had lived for 69 years before their deaths in the past two years. One of them was badly injured, with three cracked vertebrae and a punctured spleen. "She's in the hospital in Springfield," she said. "But she will be OK."

A woman down the street also died.

Across Joplin, the 200 mile-per-hour storm had torn a swath three-quarter of a mile wide and 13 miles long, affecting a third of the city. More than 130 people were killed and more than 1,000 injured.

God is in the aftermath

As Shields combed through her belongings, about a dozen high school students worked in her yard, hauling splintered lumber to the curb and separating chunks of wallboard from felled trees.
They all were strangers to her.

Members of the youth group from the Full Gospel Church of nearby Southwest City had pulled up in their van and asked if they could help. They got out, pulled on work gloves and did what they could. After about an hour they were gone, their van driving through the blocks and blocks of decimated houses, looking for others needing them.

Trucks and cars also made their way through the neighborhood, slowing for the driver to call out, "Anybody need some water? Gatorade?"

Shields thanked them but said she was fine, she had a cooler handy.

When asked how she was so resilient in the face of such devastation, Shields was matter-of-fact. "Our faith," she said. A lifelong member of Joplin's only Episcopal church, she said she knew that nature, not God, had caused the storm, but that "God was in the aftermath."

Her rector, the Rev. Frank Sierra, said it's evident that Shields' strong faith helps to sustain her. "She does believe that God is watching over us, and that God loves us," he said. "God works through the people who are helping us. She really sees that."

Sierra added, "We are God's hands and God's feet. God is present and hasn't abandoned us."

Gesturing to the high schoolers cleaning up her yard, Shields said, "God came to us in so many shapes and forms, like these wonderful children helping." She said many members of St. Philip's have helped, too, providing the couple with a place to stay until their insurance company can find them a home to rent.

The Shieldses are one of nine parish families left homeless by the tornado, and Sierra said at least half his congregation now is registered with the Federal Emergency Management Agency, putting them in line for a variety of federal aid. The church itself escaped damage, as did Sierra's home.

A number of Joplin residents also are members of Grace Church in Carthage, a smaller town about 15 miles away. As the mother church of the county, it has about double the membership of St. Philip's, according to the Rev. Steven Wilson, its rector. That parish also has nine homeless families, and another two have major damage.

No members of either congregation were killed, but the grandson of some Grace Church members remains in critical condition in a hospital in Kansas City. The 14-year-old was in a pick-up truck in the parking lot of the Home Depot when the storm hit; the twister tossed the truck into the store. The young man suffered significant brain trauma and a broken neck but, Wilson said, "He's surviving."

Finding ways to help, and to cope

Members from both churches have aided in rescue and relief efforts. Some have been informal -- helping a neighbor dig out -- while others have registered as volunteers through AmeriCorps, the coordinating agency.

Grace Church members have provided sack lunches to the staff of St. John's Medical Center, which set up a makeshift site after the hospital took a direct hit. They've also helped feed an expanded staff at two area animal shelters, which are dealing with many stray, rescued and injured animals. Wilson said he guesses 150 of his people have helped out in some capacity.

Sierra said his congregation has helped 10 families salvage what they could from their homes, and members have helped move one church family into a rental house.

Wilson said that several of his members are struggling to cope with having found dead bodies, reporting nightmares and trouble sleeping. He's also seeing trauma in survivors, both physical and emotional. "People are having to put mom's entire life into three or four cardboard boxes," he said.

Both priests say everyone in their parish has been affected, whether their home was damaged or not. "Everyone knows someone who was killed or left homeless," Wilson said.

Both churches now are turning their attention to residents of a large subsidized housing complex, since many of those residents were uninsured. Wilson said they can get some help through FEMA, but it won't be enough to replace what they've lost. Reaching them also may be a challenge, he said. "They are part of the social ladder largely unseen in disasters, and churches don't normally reach them."

Sierra said St. Philip's is helping local United Methodist churches put together move-in kits for these residents, to help out when they find new housing. The kits include tableware for four people, kitchen gadgets, cleaning supplies and some food staples.

Providing a church home

Wilson said he thinks 25 churches were destroyed in the tornado, and one of them was the Reformed Episcopal Church of Our Savior. That denomination split from the Episcopal Church in the 19th century over the use of liturgical rituals. West Missouri Bishop Martin Field said when he called their bishop in Texas and offered them the use of Joplin's Episcopal church, "he was almost in tears."

Their first service at St. Philip's was the Sunday after the storm, with about 30 people present. "We even rounded up some 1928 Prayer Books out of storage that they could use," Field said.
Sierra said Our Savior's congregation will worship on Sunday afternoon, with a weeknight youth group meeting. They'll have their offices at St. Philip's, too.

Field offered the use of St. Philip's to Bishop Gerald Mansholt of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, after Peace Lutheran Church was reduced to rubble. While grateful for the offer, Sierra said that congregation will use a Presbyterian church that's closer.

Field said he knows how stressful this will be for his area clergy, which besides Sierra and Wilson includes the Rev. Ted Estes, who serves the Nevada church an hour north but lives in Carthage and whose family lost seven homes in Joplin, as well as Deacons Galen Snodgrass and Jeff Bell.

He's appointed two diocesan clergy to serve as chaplains, to provide assistance and respite care, since helping their people cope with the tornado will be "a draining ministry on top of regular parish ministry."

Sierra said that on the Saturday after the tornado, after a long day of helping parishioners, his wife urged him to rest. Instead, he mowed the lawn because it was something that "felt normal," he said.

The church also organized an interfaith service at a local baseball diamond on Memorial Day evening, which gave people of faith from across the city a chance to come together in prayer. Christians and Jews were there, and the imam of the local mosque sent his regrets since he was hosting a team of volunteers from the mosque in Dallas. The Joplin mosque also was housing nine families left homeless, including the imam's.

What's next?

Field said the Diocese of West Missouri already has received an emergency grant of $10,000 from Episcopal Relief and Development, and he knows more is available when they need it.

He has some experience with tornado relief, since he was rector of a church in Jackson, Tennesee, when one struck that town. He learned it was helpful to hold some money back, so when insurance money had been spent and homeowners came up short, he still was able to help. "I think I bought a hundred refrigerators," he said.

Wilson said bulldozers have started clearing away the debris, but that doesn't mean there won't be lots to do. He guesses it will take five years for Joplin to fully recover. "There are no living trees for six to eight square miles," he said. "There's a hospital to rebuild, and a high school."

He said, "Volunteers will be needed, but give us a month."

Bishop Dean Wolfe of the Diocese of Kansas attended the interfaith service and told Joplin residents that they would not be left to go it alone as they worked to rebuild.

"Tornados blow away state lines," he said.

Sierra said his church didn't have a disaster response plan in place before the tornado, something that would have been a big help. "I encourage all clergy, vestries, bishop's committees, before you need it, have a disaster plan," he said. It should include not only names and contact information for members but also local helping agencies like the American Red Cross.

He said, "Do it now, when things are calm and peaceful, because you never know when you are going to need it."

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