Picking up the pieces: Fay Barnes Blevins
I am the senior pastor of First Christian Church, Joplin. I ask people to call me “pastor,” or “Fay” or whatever as long as it’s nice. This is my first call out of seminary.
First Christian Church is the typical downtown church in small-city U.S.A. We have a long history of 135+ years, planting several other churches around town in that time, and now figuring out what God is calling us to do in this time and place. I am the first female pastor and the previous pastor retired after 29 years.
I was attending an Area Board Meeting about 45 minutes out of Joplin. We just finished our meeting and were preparing to have dinner-it was a church dinner and so….I felt the need to stay and enjoy…the dessert looked really good. I noticed several people looking at their smart phones and talking about the weather. As I finished eating, the Elder who was with me, suggested we might head back and “beat the storm.” So, we climbed into the car (I was driving) and headed towards Joplin. About 20-30 miles out, I can’t remember exactly, the sky become almost black and the wind was strong. Then the rain came down so heavy I slowed to a snail’s pace. We listened to the radio and heard there was a tornado warning. The weather continued to get worse and I could barely see. Semi’s were pulled off to the side of the road. (I had just watched a show on tornados that are hidden by walls of rain. People don’t see them until they’re swept up into them.) I decided to pull off the highway and find shelter. We pulled off at the next exit and pulled under a bride/overpass. There were several other cars there as well. We sat listening to radio, feeling the car trying to be pushed by the wind, and listening to the hail as it fell. The Elder and I tried to call our spouses, but there was no phone service. So, we continued to listen to the radio as they spoke of the tornado touching down in Joplin.
When the rain and hail let up some, we got back on to the highway and drove into Joplin. I still wasn’t able to get a hold of Wes, my husband. Then I heard the radio say, “There is complete devastation at 7th and Range Line.” I panicked as that was half a mile from our apartment and the tornado would have moved directly towards it. As we pulled into town we didn’t see much of anything except for tree damage, even though the radio reported mass destruction. I pulled up to my apartment complex and it was fine…not a shingle off or busted window! Just debris everywhere. I screamed for Wes and ran to our apartment to find he and the dog, randy, just fine, but all of us shaken. Wes had attempted to film the tornado from the balcony of our apartment, but when he discovered it wouldn’t work he went inside to take cover. Shortly, thereafter, we noticed the constant sound of sirens from emergency vehicles. That sound would be constant for the next 36-48 hours.
We didn’t have power or water in a our apartment and I wanted to check on the church and get numbers to call people. We headed to the church and our route didn’t take us anywhere near the damage, but there was absolute chaos in the streets. It tool 45 minutes to get to the church, when it normally took 15. Once I saw that the physical structure was sound, I opened our Family Life Center/Gym area thinking it could be used as emergency shelter. Within 2 hours churches from Kansas were delivering water, food, clothes, towels and soap. Within 3-4 hours, survivors of the storm were arriving. People covered in dirt, leaves and grass plastered to their body. Tattered clothes, wet and cold. All in shock and afraid. We served soup and coffee. We worked to help them find family and friends who would be looking for them. It was one of the most overwhelming moments of my life while at the same time being one of the most blessed. I don’t know who any of those people were or where they are now, I can only hope that we provided a bit of comfort and a sense of hope.
Our apartment was safe, but without utilities. We just closed on our first house the week before. It was left unharmed as well…though 75% of the homes we looked at were destroyed. We packed up towels, air mattress, toiletries, and a change of clothes and headed to our house. It was completely empty, but it had hot water and lights. There was no sleep to be had the first several nights. The next day I began the search for congregants and discovered a young 20-something couple who moved to Joplin about the same time we did, lost everything. They came and camped with us at our house for a week until we could find a more permanent solution. Which, coincidentally, was that they helped us move out of the apartment into the house and they assumed the lease on the apartment.
For two weeks I would search for people, trying to remember little tidbits of information I might have picked up on extended family members; picking the brains of others who might know something. All the members were found alive and accounted for…an amazing blessing, perhaps a real miracle. 14 families lost their homes, and over 30 families had severe damage or lost a job as a result of the storm.
The damage was/is incomprehensible. It was like the scenes from war movies…I thought I was watching “Saving Private Ryan” only without the tanks. Entire sections, neighborhoods, in piles of broken wood and glass. People wading through the debris were pitiful. Looking for any little thing they might be able to salvage.
Life since, has been a constant sense of inadequacy…for me, at least.
It’s been about listening to stories and making connections to resources. It’s been about being hospitable to our brothers and sisters in Christ as they need a place to worship, and being a place where people can give time and donations, and a place where people can find the things they need to make it another day. We operated a Distribution Center from Friday, May 27th to Sunday, September 4th. We still have our final winter clothing give-away on October 22nd (NO CLOTHES NEEDED!) It’s been a time of prayer and constant reminder to people that this storm was not punishment from God for some ill of an individual or nation.
It’s been a baptism by fire…or wind.
There is much left to do. The local government is coordinating with local organizations and churches are forming a Long Term Recovery Committee. Part of their work will be finding those who didn’t get insurance money or enough insurance money or didn’t get FEMA assistance and find them help to rebuild or repair. The LTRC will funnel financial and people resources into these projects. So, workgroups will be needed to feed the people resources necessary to rebuild.
I received MANY notes via Facebook and MANY phone calls checking in and offering us prayers. Their support has helped me immensely. I know I can call for a listening ear, a cheerleader, or a good laugh. Some even offer wise advice from time to time. Most of them reassured me that I was right where I needed to be, when I might have thought otherwise.
We are always happy to take financial donations directly to assist the community. Come volunteer when we begin rebuilding. We would love to see you! Support Week of Compassion as they do wonderful work and we appreciate ALL the support thy have given us these last, long months. Pray, pray, pray.
Our church is SO GENEROUS! With all the cries of fiscal concerns and budgetary worries here, there, and everywhere people have been generous with their time and their gifts. We received several emails, cards, and phone calls from people just wishing us well and keeping us in prayer. It’s an incredibly powerful/humbling moment to realize how many people might actually be praying for you. I have seen the Spirit at work in the church and it’s alive and well. I’m not sure how anyone could make it through a situation like this without the support of a faith community.