The Joplin tornado that touched down on May 22 seemed to me to be just another instance of our world’s seemingly increasing natural disasters. I’m with you—I’m getting to the point of just being overwhelmed with what seems like an unending onslaught of tragedy. Go dig your head in a whole? Shrug some shoulders? Either seem like acceptable coping mechanisms. NPR threw up some slider photos that allowed you to see the before and after of some specific scenes of this disaster.
I looked at them. And they sort of stuck with me.
A day later, by noon while at work I just felt compelled to do something. My wife is the best person on earth to deal with my compulsiveness and she said “Yea, let’s go”. With a goal to truck my family of six I thought perhaps we could get our (mega?) church to provide a trailer to pull supplies. After some effort, I was told “we don’t exactly have a campaign to raise funds for that!” Um, Ok. Well, the great commission to share the love of Jesus was never for an institution—it was for each believer. (I’m still in a bit of shock at how apathetic the church can be when responding to any immediate need). You’ll read later we met a pastor leading a flock of THREE, yes 3 families and he was out there doing it! I didn’t need no stinkin’ campaign fund, we took it on faith that this was a specific call for us to go to Joplin to do whatever we could. We called our good friends up in Denver who also agreed to join us with their young sons. Right on!
“Babe, I want us on the road by 6:30. That gives you only a few hours to pack.”
Ever pack 4 little kids and yourself, and prep various animals, critters, creepy-crawly things, and plan for your beloved dog how they are going to be kept alive for a few hot summer days? Add to that you have no idea WHERE you are going, WHAT you are going to do, WHO you are going to meet and WHAT you might end up being exposed to?
Yeah, so that was the preface to this journey. We trust our Tom-Tom GPS, nicknamed “Tomalina” because of the sultry woman’s voice it has. She’s been part of our family the better part of four years. She’d get us to Joplin.
We pushed through the 788 night miles taking turns and by 9:30AM we were in Joplin proper. Stopped by a local Wal-Mart that had converted all their end caps into survival supplies. Nice. We picked up some rakes, trashbags, and gloves and were back on the road. Some guy in the parking lot heard that we were trying to help and offered to chauffeur us into the disaster zone. We followed him down the interstate and nothing seemed awry. Yet.
We eventually started seeing debris and what looked like trash. Then a freeway sign missing. Then bent poles. Oh wow, this was intense.
That was nothing.
Cutting to the chase, we eventually ended up in the heartland of Joplin, only to find the heart was missing. I’ve never seen anything like this in my life. Surreal. Unbelievable. For as far as one could see left to right, six miles to be precise—there was just utter devastation and it was overwhelming. Entire houses, no—entire neighborhoods completely gone. As bad as it was, I didn’t feel emotional to the point of tears while there (for me that didn’t happen until I saw my own pictures on my Mac back in safe, Colorado).
My buddy, Darius had made contact before we even left with some dinky Baptist church in Joplin. The pastor, Mike said to just call him when we arrived. Mike met up with us and drove us into a neighborhood that was littered with debris. He suggested we just knock on doors and see if there was anything we could do to help the families there. We had rakes and plenty of lawn trashbags, afterall…
Slowly driving through what I will call the “secondary zone” were houses that had damage, but for the most part were intact. We came across an older gentle lady who was cleaning her yard of debris. We pulled over, got out, and asked if we could help her out. She was surprise and accepted. We were there maybe 30 minutes after the 10 of us (6 kids included) picked up all the trash we could. I mowed the lawn. She had a ride-on, how could I resist?
A train horn was heard, and slower than I assume it normally moves through the town on an elevated berm I saw the engineer standing on the very front of the locomotive, hands outstretched, taking pictures with his camera. What was he seeing that we could not? (He was looking to the West and we were on the other side of the berm).
We then pushed into the main part of town that was simply sucked off the face of the earth. I’m not sure how else to describe it. That less than 120 people were confirmed dead was implausible to me, and to everyone we ran into. There had to be more. A 1/2 mile WIDE tornado, rated an EF5 of 216+ MPH winds, that cut 6+ miles through the center of a town of 50,000 people. Locals told us of stories of off-limits areas of so many bodies, the coroner couldn’t confirm the death count. It may have not been true after-all. As of today, I believe less than 150 have been confirmed dead.
A few things I came to give to Joplin, it gave back to me. I was hoping to help, to minister to broken people, give hope, encourage. They did that to me.
This was not a land of government rescue and official presence, it was truly a grass-roots rescue operation run by everyday people. It was devastation with the pride of America pronounced throughout. Flags here. Flags there. Flags everywhere. And crosses. Yes, the Red Cross was there, United Way, the Baptists, the JW’s, the Mormons, everyday folk. You couldn’t be on ANY street in a 7-10 mile radius and not have someone come by in a vehicle every 90 seconds asking if you needed anything. A cold water, ice, gloves, candy, new stuffed animals, your laundry done, entire meals, a place to sleep.
It was amazing. To see so much love, so much generosity. With no questions asked. No religion pill to swallow. No commitment. It was simply human beings taking care of each other and I have never experienced such open-handed generosity before—both in the locals and volunteers acting as their own live distribution network, but also for the corporate generosity of Wal-Mart and many, many others that were bringing in supplies by the truckload.
I hope we somehow impacted others with our effort, but I know for certain we too gained much from this Memorial Day weekend trip. I also believe this has left a lasting impression on my kids—and I hope they have a take-away that it is indeed better to give than to receive.