161 people were killed and over 1000 were injured on May 22, 2011 in Joplin, Missouri. The twister, with winds over 200 mph, was the deadliest tornado in America since 1947, carving a scar on the earth one mile wide and seven miles long. When the winds died down, the College Heights Christian Church was the control center for recovery efforts. Their pastor, Randy Garish, spoke to church leaders in Oregon about the horrors, and heartbreak.
The title of the conference was, “Being the Heart and Hands of Jesus in the Eye of the Storm.” Randy spoke of the role of the church in the midst of crisis, reminding us of what Jesus would do for those desperately hurting around us. He shared several touching and heart-wrenching human stories about those caught up in the storm.
A husband quickly covered his wife with his own body outside as winds whipped debris about them. As he covered her, he said he wasn’t sure if he’d make it, so over the roar of the winds he began speaking into her ear crucial messages of love. As soon as he was done speaking, his body was punctured by flying debris and he was killed, those loving messages still echoing in his wife’s heart, messages that will remain with her the rest of her life and will surely be passed down to children and grandchildren.
A grandmother in Joplin was reflecting on the beautiful day outside her window. Using her cell phone, she sent out text messages to her granddaughter about how beautiful heaven must be. Then she saw the coming storm; it was headed straight for her. She sent another text message to her granddaughter, saying, “I may get to see the face of Jesus today.” Moments later she was in heaven, seeing the very face she spoke of. That young woman will never forget her grandmother’s faith and spiritual longing.
A child was sucked from the very arms of his mother. He flew across the yard toward the tornado, but was caught by a swing set in their backyard. There he was, whipping about, wrapped in the chains of the swing. His mother struggled against the storm to reach her son, to pull him back into the house. Finally safe inside their home, he told his mom that if it wasn’t for the “man with the big butterfly wings” who caught him and put him in the swing, the tornado would have taken him away.
Gary gave us all a booklet from Ozark Christian College containing many other stories. The college stood on the very edge of the tornado’s path. Many people connected with the school died that day. People like Natalia, who just completed her freshman year.
She was an excellent student, and thoroughly in love with Jesus. Her last facebook post that day, before the winds came, was these lyrics to a song: “In Christ alone my hope is found. He is my light, my strength, my song. This Cornerstone, this solid ground, firm through the fiercest drought and storm.” When the storm hit, Natalia covered a seven-year-old child with her own body and began to pray out loud. Her pastor said he could hear Natalia praying, and then suddenly she was silent. She died speaking with the Lord she was preparing to meet.
After hearing of Natalia’s passing, a Bible professor returned to his home and glanced at a stack of papers waiting to be graded. Natalia’s paper was on the top, and her topic was the resurrection of Christ. “It’s a good paper, deserving of an A,” the professor said, “but she knows this truth far better now.”
Shortly after the tornado, Christian baptisms began occurring all over the community in ditches of dirty water. Tragedy somehow opened the hearts of countless people, moving them to look for something more precious than material possessions and creature comforts. Countless church members took action to heal the hurting and comfort the frightened and grieving.
An official from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) told Randy that, of all the disasters he has been involved in over the years, he had never seen a group of people as organized, or as tender and compassionate as those led by the College Heights Christian Church. May that be said about all of when the need arises.
“Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.
Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people…” (Gal 6:9-10).
Writing Prompts: When have you seen heartbreak or tragedy bring out the best in people? What is it about tragedy that draws people together in unity, even in a culture where we are often so isolated? What lessons have you learned from heartbreak?