I can’t believe it’s been five years since the tornado hit Joplin, Missouri, killing 160 people and destroying a main portion of the city. Joplin was the town I called home while I was in college. It’s crazy to think that I left Joplin 28 hours before the tornado hit. When I left to go home for the summer, I never would have imagined how different the city would look when I would return just three months later. I could have never guessed that my sister and her husband, along with several others, would survive the tornado in the basement of their church when the sanctuary went. And I would have never imagined that a girl that had been in choir with me in college (Natalia Puebla) would lose her life in the storm. It was one of the hardest things I ever had to witness, even from a distance on the news, because it was very personal. However, as I look back, I am amazed at all that God taught me from that difficult time. On the fifth anniversary of this catastrophic event, I wanted to share three of the biggest lessons I learned from the Joplin tornado.
The Tornado Gave Me A Context to Sympathize with Other Tragedies
Have you ever had anyone ask you where you were on 9/11? All of us that were old enough remember it. I remember where I was and what I was doing. I remember the reactions of everyone around us. I remember the fear and uncertainty that seized all of our hearts. As I look back on that event, I remember that it seemed personal because it was country I lived in. But in the end, it really wasn’t that personal. After all, I had never been to New York City or knew anyone that had been in the Twin Towers that day. All that I had seen was new footage. That’s the way it was for the majority of Americans. It seemed personal, but it really wasn’t as personal as we thought in certain respects. It was often the same way with natural disasters like Hurricane Katrina. We felt bad for the people that were suffering, but it wasn’t personal because we didn’t know how to identify with that kind of destruction and loss. It’s hard to relate to something you don’t understand. At least until it happens to you or people you love.
The Joplin Tornado completely changed my perspective on catastrophic events, like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, because it gave me a context with which I could sympathize with their suffering. Although I was not in Joplin when the tornado hit, it was hard to watch the town I called home destroyed. It was personal and it was heart-breaking. People died in the Wal-Mart where I shopped dozens of times, as well as other stores and restaurants I frequented. I could have just as easier been in any of those places when it hit. As often as I am asked about where I was on 9/11, that question also makes me think about where I was on 5/22, and I remember to use those difficult memories as an opportunity to sympathize with those that face similar situations.
The Tornado Proved That God Protected So Many Lives
On one hand, it was so hard to personally witness all the destruction that happened because of the tornado. It grieves me to think about how many people lost their lives in the storm and how many more suffered the loss of homes and businesses because of it. But on the other hand, I got to hear so many eye witness accounts of how God protected so many people. In many cases, I got to hear them firsthand. Here’s just a few examples:
- My sister and her husband were preparing to start a meeting about that summer’s VBS program in the church building, along with several other people from their congregation. When the sky turned green and the sirens sounded, everyone ran for the basement. A few of the men, including my sister’s husband, quickly checked to make sure everyone was downstairs. He was the last one to make it back downstairs before they closed the door. One or two other men didn’t make it to the basement, but wedged themselves behind the refrigerators in the kitchen. In the end, everyone in the building was safe, but the sanctuary was destroyed, which was the place where they were supposed to be having their meeting. When my mom first told me about the tornado, before I saw any news footage, she told me that they had already heard from Jenn (thanks to Verizon’s cell phone service) and that they were both OK.
- I knew a few people that were in Wal-Mart when the roof was lifted off. One couple I knew was saved by a shelf buckling over them and protecting them. Another man I knew, an employee of my college, saved his wife and daughter by encamping themselves in the middle of a shopping cart ring.
- So many people I knew lost their apartments, but were somewhere else like their job or their church that night. There were also several businesses that were not open that night because it was Sunday, which saved more people.
- One of my favorite stories included a friend of mine who had just graduated and was very pregnant. She was in her apartment with her parents when the storm hit, and the only place they had to hide was the hallway. Two things happened: first, the wall of the hallway tented around them, protecting them. Secondly, despite all the debris that was flying around and the high winds, no one single thing hit her belly.
- Despite all the destruction, despite the fact that it tornado when through residential and commercial areas of the city, despite all the odds, only about 160 people died in the storm. Yes, it still grieves me that 160 died, don’t get me wrong. But only 160 died, despite all that destruction. That’s was God’s protection around Joplin, Missouri, and I got to witness it firsthand
The Tornado Taught Me About the Power of Community in Times of Distress
Probably just as powerful as witnessing God’s hand of protection during the tornado was witnessing the community and support that happened after the tornado. What others did to help the city of Joplin was an incredible thing to behold. My college (Ozark Christian College) and many of the churches in Joplin had the opportunity to be the hands and feet of Jesus in such a blatant, tangible way. Many of these places became the distribution centers or were able to help provide temporary housing. Some eventually helped sponsor the rebuilding of houses. But in the end, everyone in Joplin had to step up their game in order to rise above their circumstances. They had to help each other achieve this goal, with the help of many outside of Joplin that stepped up to make a different and fulfill the needs of many who were in distress. Many of those that stepped up to help did so with the greatest of humility, while others lacked it. Seeing all of this was such a powerful reminder of how important it is for us as Christians to help those who are in distress and to do so with a genuine desire to serve.
This was shown most powerfully when my home church brought a group down to Joplin that October for a mission trip. What was so interesting about it was that there happen to be there at the exact same time as Extreme Makeover: Home Edition was there building seven houses and rebuilding Cunningham Park. It was interesting to see how much recognition and attention this show was drawing to what they were doing. Don’t get me wrong, what they did was awesome and I even had some friends that were able to volunteer on the building crews. But in the end, it was presented as a TV show, with the intention of making it emotional for the audience and bringing the glory back to themselves. However, the group from my church was a different story. All there did was help make progress on the rebuilding of two houses and do some work in one of the distribution centers. In the grand scheme of work that still needed to get done, there didn't make a huge dent. But their humility in what they did was incredible. I was so proud of my dad and the team he led as they acknowledged that everything they accomplished on that trip was to help others and bring the glory back to God.
As I look back, I realize that there was a lot of things that I didn’t respond to as well as I wish I had at the time. The tornado was so unexpected and the scale of the destruction was so large that it was difficult to process. Much of my initial response was selfishly motivated. But out of all the things I’ve observed, one thing still stands out: God made beauty out the ashes of Joplin, Missouri. It makes me think of the song Beauty Will Rise by Steven Curtis Chapman. This song was written when he lost his five-year old daughter. If you haven’t listened to it, you can listen here:
This song applies to this tragedy in so many ways. But one of the lines of the songs that stands out to me is: It will take our breath away/To see the beauty that He’s made out of the ashes. I am now only now beginning to get a sense of the incredible masterpiece He is making as a result of what happened in Joplin on May 22, 2011. And it is beautiful. Yes, it was created through people’s brokenness and suffering, but all of it is being made into something more beautiful than any resident of Joplin could have ever imagined. We are only going to get a taste of that masterpiece while we live here this side of heaven. It’s in moments like this that I can’t wait to get to heaven, so I can see the completed masterpiece. I hope that you have come to understand it better through this post.