THANKSGIVING IN JOPLIN: Two churches rebuild after May 22 tornado

Thursday, November 24, 2011 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 9:51 a.m. CST, Thursday, November 24, 2011
Morgan Sutton, 4, plays in Joplin’s Cunningham Park. The structure is a giant wristband that was built to commemorate the "miracle of the human spirit," which is etched in on the left side.

JOPLIN — Six months after the May 22 tornado hit southwest Missouri, the people of South Joplin Christian Church and Empire Baptist Church are still trying to rebuild what was lost.

Their churches were damaged in the tornado, but the two congregations made it through with the strength of their community.

As the season of tradition approaches, they are thankful for one thing that hasn't changed — their faith.


Donated crosses adorn the basement wall of South Joplin Christian Church. Tom Wheeler arranged the crosses to form a larger cross in the negative space. The church was damaged in the tornado and reopened its doors on Nov. 6. | AMRITA JAYAKUMAR

Finding grace on a Sunday morning

"What is grace?" Kate Foster asks.

"Something you say before dinner," a member of the Bible study suggests.

Laughter fills the room.

A candle burns on the table because the electricity in the basement study room isn't working. No one seems to mind. The dim lighting helps them wake up slowly on a Sunday morning.

It's only the second Sunday for South Joplin Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) to have services and activities in its original location, 1901 S. Pearl Ave. They are still working out kinks in the building.

Most of the people in this room probably say grace before every meal.

Those who don't are certainly not judged. The grace they say on holidays is enough for them right now. And that's OK.

During the study session, members of the group take turns reading statements about grace — grace and its different meanings, not just the grace said before dinner.

Every quote sparks a conversation about grace. Twelve people; 12 different thoughts.

Many of the statement are about God's grace. One man compares it to the love a parent gives a child. A woman compares it to Alcoholics Anonymous.

There is no consensus about the definition of grace, but it doesn't matter. The fact that it exists is the one thing everyone agrees on.

Jessica Schuster

Well-meaning gestures can still be painful

Betsy Wheeler lives four houses off the tornado line. Her house was not destroyed, and her family is safe.

The first phone call she received after everything had settled down was from her father. He was calling to say how much he thanked God for watching over her.

It's a common condolence and a kind gesture that she has trouble accepting. She does not want to dismiss what her friends and family have said to her over the past six months, but she hasn't found a way to graciously tell them that isn't how she feels.

She sits on a bench in the corner of the adult Bible study at South Joplin Christian Church. She's behind the horseshoe table that seats most of the group. By the nature of the setup, almost everyone's back is to her. But they are all listening.

A tear wells up in her eye. It's barely visible across the dim basement room, but you can hear the pain in her voice.

"I can't accept it when people say that," she said. "Because He was watching over all of those who received damage and were in danger. Not just me."

Heads nod around the room.

The study group meets once weekly before the service and represents a variety of ages and stations in life. Today 12 adults gather in the small room. The door is shut, but it swings open regularly as people come and go, retrieving coffee and meeting family members outside.

There are long stretches of silence and a few disagreements, but no one’s opinion is wrong.

It feels safe. It feels calm. Wheeler's husband, Tom, sits facing the table. His wife is across the room, but the physical distance does not inhibit him from helping her finish her sentence.

"We are thankful that God saw that we were OK and that he moved on to others that needed him more," he said.

The Wheelers do not feel they directly suffered from the May 22 tornado, but they have been affected by it.

"We live on the edge of the line, and feeling on the edge of it is the perfect description," Tom Wheeler said.  

— Katrina Ball

Pushing out the past with prayer

Across the basement, the members of the Fishers Bible study group — a group of older church members and previously the group for young married people — join hands.

"We're glad to have everybody," Harry Guinn, the group leader, says.

"It's good to be here," someone whispers.

"Harry, would you like to do our prayer for us?" Doris Guinn, his wife, asks.

"Father, we come to you this morning with thanksgivings and blessings in our heart," he says. The prayer lasts no longer than two minutes.

They shuffle back to their seats. Harry Guinn begins his lesson, 1 Samuel: 28.

"Now let me put you in a situation. We've just been through situations haven't we?"

Earlene Ivy, like others in the group, was in a situation six months ago. Now she sits in a metal chair three rows back.

"You're in a situation that you have no recourse by," Harry Guinn continues. "You have no activities that you can do to help yourself. None whatsoever."

In the aftermath of the tornado, Ivy couldn't pull herself from beneath eight feet of debris. She lay flat on the bathroom floor during the storm and knocked a wall and sink over her, creating a triangle to cover her and her miniature pinscher, Lucy.

"A savior appears, whether it be a worker, an angel, another person whom you know nothing about. How's it going to make you feel?" Harry Guinn asks the silent class members.

Ivy tried to call for help. She heard people above, but they couldn't hear her. Finally, she couldn't yell anymore. She asked God to make her ready to be with him. She's been a Christian all her life; this was her test.

"You're going to be frightened, you're going to be gratified because you're going to think, here is somebody to help you," Harry Guinn says.

Roy Winians, Ivy's neighbor, found her in the debris.

"Earlene, give me your hand," Winians told her.

"I can't, Roy. I've got the dog."

"Well, hand me the dog."

"I can't! She's on top of me!"

Out came Lucy, then Earlene.

"This happened to Joplin on May 22," Harry Guinn says as he winds up his point.

Ivy lost almost everything. A few photos were recovered, a cut-glass punch bowl with glasses and 12 plates of her remaining china, which she will use to set her table this Thanksgiving.

She is thankful to be alive, though she doesn't know why. But she believes God has a purpose. "When I find out, I'll tell you about it."

Kathryn Landis

Six months of giving from remarkable strangers

The Christian Church was left standing but was seriously water-damaged during the tornado.

According to Judy Schneider, the old stones held the rainwater like an over-sized coffee mug. From the basement, she could see the sky through the two floors that were no longer there.

She tries to talk about the acts of generosity she has witnessed since the congregation began to repair the building. She is dumbfounded, and tears threaten her appearance of composure as she remembers.

A man from Springfield donated the bathroom counter in the women's restroom. Another man came with sandwiches in his backpack to give out to workers.

The contractor made a memorial video for the re-dedication service. Crosses were donated by church members and construction workers for a mural in the basement — a project that began before the tornado hit.

"People do that," Schneider said. She shared a poignant story. 

On the first day of the clean-up, a woman came from Galena to help. The woman took the waterlogged memorial book from the library and made it her task to restore the contents.

One-by-one, she removed articles, obituaries, cards and other pieces of memorabilia, patted them dry with a paper towel and carefully reinserted them into the original book.

"It was literally pouring down rain through three stories onto our memorial book in the library," Schneider said.

"Without her doing that, our memorial book would have been gone."

Kathryn Landis

The choir warms up for Sunday service in the basement of South Joplin Christian Church. | KATHRYN LANDIS

Finally coming home to a place of rest

The smell of new paint is everywhere, and the carpet in the church feels soft and lush.

It's still an hour before the Sunday service, but the corridors are already filled.

People stop to say hello, smile and exchange hugs. Some listen to the pianist warm up. Others go downstairs for coffee and Bible study. The children gather upstairs for Sunday school.

Before the tornado hit, there were already plans to renovate the church. The tornado forced church members to speed things up.

On Nov. 6, the church welcomed back its flock. Congregants had been sharing space with the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) while their church was being restored.

It was nice to come home, said Jennifer Reaves, a real estate agent and member of the congregation.

Reaves, 33, has lived in Joplin most of her life. Her wedding took place at the old church, the one her two young daughters will remember only through photos.

Although the church was severely damaged, she considers it a blessing.

"I'm thankful that my children get to grow up in this new, remodeled church," she said.

She sits in the basement before a bright red wall covered with crosses. The church began collecting them before the tornado, but they have poured in since.

The wall represents a fresh start.

Amrita Jayakumar

Giving thanks for more than new windows

A large sheet of paper with the words "thank you" handwritten by at least 100 church members lies next to the Sunday programs.

At the bottom of the page is a drawing of a line of people with their arms extended to the edges of the paper. It resembles the image you get when people say, "I love you this much," then stretch their arms out as far as physically possible.

Tom Wheeler, a local art teacher and member of congregation, drew these characters. Their slightly goofy long arms and pastel-colored outfits can't help but bring a smile. Neither can Tom.

His eyes sparkle through round, metal-frame glasses as he talks about how First Christian Church shared their building with South Joplin Christian in the months after the tornado.

His drawing and the many expressions of thanks above it are for the First Christian Church.

On Nov. 20, South Joplin Christian hosted a re-dedication ceremony to celebrate the opening of the restored church and all of the people who helped during their time of need.

The church now has modern new windows to replace blue plastic windows that survived the tornado.

"We joked that they were so ugly, even God didn't want them," Wheeler said.

Tears threaten, but he keeps a smile on his face.

"I deal with things with humor because if not, I'll cry," he said.

Jessica Schuster

Parents can't fix everything, but they can try 

Sunday school is in session on the third floor. Wooden tables and tiny blue chairs line the wall. Angels, shepherds and kings giggle while rehearsing Bible stories.

Dia Skilas, 31, smiles as she interacts with the children.

She knows exactly what she's grateful for this Thanksgiving: Life.

She doesn't mean her own, but that of her daughter and her mother.

Nine-year-old Darby Skilas was performing at the local community theater on May 22. Her grandmother had come to watch her.

When the play was over, Dia Skilas left her job at St. John's Regional Medical Center to pick them up. That's when the tornado hit.

The hospital and theater were both in its path.

At least two people died in the theater that day. Darby flew into the air before a friend pulled her back to safety.

Dia Skilas is happy to be back home in the church with her family, teaching Sunday school.

The wind took a lot from this community. But on this Sunday, South Joplin Christian is thankful for what is still there.

Amrita Jayakumar


Webb City resident Glen Davidson walks out of Empire Baptist Church’s temporary location in Joplin. The church is holding services in the building that is owned by the Spring River Baptist Association. | AMRITA JAYAKUMAR

A church endures without a steeple

From the outside, it looks like an elaborate garden shed.

Here, in a fluorescent-lit room, 20 members of the Empire Baptist Church sit at six round white tables.

The small metal building is owned by the Spring River Baptist Association, which is letting them use it until they have a church of their own.

The building is gone, but the church remains.

Like sheep without a pasture — or pastor — they needed time to regroup. Their pastor quit the morning of May 22.

There was no way for him to know how bad the day would be for the congregation.

On the second Wednesday after the tornado, a group of 15 met at Virginia Melton’s house to discuss the future. They left an hour and a half later, unanimous about continuing the church.

Over time, the church members had become complacent about the constant turnover of ministers and low attendance rates, Melton said. The tornado gave them a chance to start anew and grow.

They pray God will provide them with the money to rebuild. Insurance will not cover it all.

To make it through the tough times, they're leaning on their faith.

Despite their losses, they are thankful for what they have: interim minister Pat Jeffers, the congregation, the bond that has held them together and the knowledge that no one was lost.

"It's like I've got a battery that's run by God," Erselene Hamlin said. "If I don't go to church and hear his word, that battery is going to run down, and I've just got to keep it going."

— Kathryn Landis

Erselene Hamlin guides her husband, Bobby Hamlin, through the Sunday scripture at Empire Baptist Church's temporary location in Joplin.| KATHRYN LANDIS

Gently pushing forward under new hands

Pat Jeffers is serving his second term as an interim minister for Empire Baptist Church.

This time around, his job came with a problem he hadn't encountered before — how to help a congregation cope with the actual loss of their church.

Today, his sermon focuses on suffering, a topic that everyone in the room can understand. He sounds much like a football coach — stern, yet motivating and attentive.

Jeffers had his doubts at first. Doubts that Empire Baptist would stick to its plan to rebuild. He thought the extent of the loss coupled with the small size of the church would encourage members to find new churches to attend rather than regroup and rebuild.

Today those doubts no longer exist.

"They are determined to be back on that corner, and I'm excited to see them there," he said.

That determination might not exist if it weren't for Jeffers. He makes an effort to choose sermon topics that are meaningful to the congregation. This time, he knows how important this really is.

His first sermons after the tornado included a discussion of the Book of Nehemiah, which describes the rebuilding of Jerusalem from ruins.

The congregation has shown a keen interest in Jeffers' sermons. So much so, that he and his wife, Qene', started a Facebook page where the sermons are posted weekly.

Along with those messages, the page is filled with stories about the tornado and comments of love and compassion.

They demonstrate just how much every person wants to share the story as the congregation heals together.

 — Jessica Schuster

When physical belongings are gone, what is there to turn to?

Glen Davidson of Webb City has been attending Empire Baptist for three years.

His home was not destroyed by the tornado, but he did lose his church, his boyhood home, the school he attended and the apartment complex where he met his wife.

He lists them off, stretching his fingers one at a time. None of the buildings actually belonged to him, but they belonged to him emotionally.

They make up the foundation of his memories. And those memories, those places, made Davidson who he is.

"Landmarks have disappeared all over town," he said. "Sometimes you can't tell where you are. The things you used to look for, to tell yourself where you are at, are gone."

It is remarkably easy to get turned around in a place that no longer looks like yours, he said.

In the months after the tornado, Davidson and his wife, Carole, were amazed at the outpouring of support from the community and volunteers from across the country.

"So many of us never saw ourselves as victims," Carole said. "It is hard to accept help. But it is heartwarming at the same time."

— Katrina Ball

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Sam Timbrook November 25, 2011 | 12:09 p.m.

Thank you for this article. Prairie Grove Baptist Church of Columbia, Mo. has been in contact with Empire Baptist of Joplin since the storm. The youth group of PGBC is in the process of partnering with Empire to support their youth as they gain a new normal.

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