Dustin Lee Sisney was mowing his aunt’s yard on Sunday just moments before one of the deadliest tornadoes in U.S. history struck Joplin, Mo. A weather app on his mobile phone alerted him of a tornado warning. He quickly put up the lawnmower and went inside seeking safety. Alone and afraid, sirens blasted warning of a looming tornado that would ultimately leave a path of destruction six miles wide.
“The house was spared,” said Sisney. “But there was debris everywhere.” The tornado destroyed roughly one-quarter of the buildings in Joplin – some 8,000 in total.
Across town, Sisney’s grandmother had not called anyone to say she was okay. The acting student in Missouri Southern State University's theatre program said when the winds calmed he immediately drove to her house.
"I got lost looking it was so bad,” said Sisney. “It was unbelievable and hard to describe what was going on.”
Sisney says his aunt found his grandmother’s body in an alley behind her home.
“We need prayer and help to get through this time,” said Sisney. “This is a close-knit town and resilient, but we need prayer.”
Bible Belt Activates
Fortunately for Sisney and the 50,000 other residents, prayer is plentiful in this southwestern Missouri town that was so badly damaged. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said the system was an F-5, the strongest rating assigned to tornadoes, with winds of more than 200 mph.
Joplin is centrally situated in the buckle of the Bible Belt, with two Christian colleges in the city: Ozark Christian College, whose campus was not harmed, and Messenger College. Less than an hour east of town is Springfield, where Christian organizations like Convoy of Hope and the Assemblies of God are both headquartered.
Within hours of the storm, Christian churches and ministry organizations had volunteer teams searching for survivors and providing assistance to those in need. College Heights Christian Churchin Joplin established a distribution center with hundreds of volunteers providing food and supplies to tornado victims.
“We have crews of people who want to help out in the city,” said Roger Lieb, Minister of Education & Communication at College Heights Christian Church. “We have specific homes and families who need help. About every 20 to 30 minutes we are sending another team into the city.”
The tornado has claimed at least 125 lives, with an estimated 900 injured and an unknown number still missing. Nine survivors have been pulled from the rubble so far. Lieb says three of his peers who serve on the churches staff have lost their homes.
“The outpouring of help is coming out of the woodwork. People’s love and concern for others is seen vividly here,” said Lieb.
Central Bible College (CBC) in Springfield joined with the Southern Missouri District Offices of the Assemblies of God (AG) in sending a team of relief workers to Joplin to help with food distribution, clean-up work and assisting on-site shelters. CBC says teams plan to go to Joplin throughout the week. AG Disaster Relief is also standing with churches that have experienced damage, while the Assemblies of God national offices has already sent some skilled workers and equipment to Joplin and is encouraging employees to join in with area relief initiatives, such as Convoy of Hope and local church efforts.
Assemblies of God officials report response from the Springfield area is just a fraction of the overwhelming response to help the victims of the Joplin tornado. Hundreds if not thousands of people are now on waiting lists, all of them waiting for approval to be activated for service.
"The Assemblies of God and Convoy of Hope have made long-term commitments to our neighbors in Joplin as well as to churches in other states impacted by the recent string of natural disasters," said Juleen Turnage, director of the AG Office of Public Relations. "Yet, without the generous support of individuals and churches throughout our Fellowship, our ability to impact hurting people and communities through compassion ministry would fall far short."
Public schools have also stepped up in a big way. One school just to the north of Joplin is forgoing its graduation celebration to support relief efforts. The Carthage High School class of 2011 is donating its entire Project Graduation fund to victims whose lives are now in shambles.
Shelly Wilson, a counselor at the school, says seniors were practicing for graduation when they were informed the location of their party in Joplin was being used as a shelter.
During a meeting the seniors concluded they couldn’t have an elaborate party while others were suffering.
“When the students were asked to vote on what to do they started yelling, ‘Donate it, donate it,’” said Wilson. “The vote was unanimous to give the funds to tornado victims. I don’t even think there was a moment’s hesitation to make the decision.”
It hasn’t been decided where exactly the funds will be sent, but the senior class will donate between $12,000 and $14,000. Instead of a big bash, the graduates will have a pizza party after graduation ceremonies paid for by parents and area businesses.
Wilson says the students also made 500 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that were served in the disaster areas. “The students have been begging to do things to help,” said Wilson.
International Teams on the Ground
Even with the strong representation of smaller Christian ministries in the region, local leaders have welcomed the assistance from larger humanitarian aid organizations.
Convoy of Hopeopened its third point of distribution in Joplin in as many days. The organization has already distributed tens of thousands of pounds of food, water and supplies to victims in the community.
"The outpouring of support has been phenomenal," says Hal Donaldson, president of Convoy of Hope, in a press release. "Corporations, individuals, churches and civic organizations have joined the effort to help victims of this disaster."
Samaritan’s Pursealso has disaster relief experts and volunteer teams on the ground, to provide emergency assistance to survivors. Staff from the international Christian relief organization arrived on Monday and immediately began assessing the damage, visiting tornado victims and taking requests for help with home repairs and debris removal.
"This is the worst storm season I have seen in my lifetime," said Franklin Graham, President of Samaritan's Purse. "These survivors need to know that God loves them, and we're grateful that He has given us what we need to respond to these disasters within hours."
Protests Amid Tragedy
President Obama is scheduled to visit the devastated town Sunday. He has already promised to help the city recover.
Meanwhile, the controversial Westboro Baptist Church plans to protest Obama's visit Sunday. On its website, the church writes, "Thank God for 125 dead in Joplin." The Topeka, Kansas-based church believes tragedies like the tornado are God's punishment on Americans for accepting homosexuality.
Church members claim Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon has attacked them by promoting laws banning them from protesting at soldiers' funerals.
In a press conference Thursday at Missouri Southern State University, Nixon said, “The people of Joplin will need to turn to a higher power to help them overcome the disaster that has struck their community.”
Nixon said a memorial service is planned for 1 p.m. Sunday. The location has not been determined.
Resources and Links
For real time activity on Facebook go to Joplin, Mo., Tornado Recovery. For a comprehensive list or relief related resources go to www.PrayforJoplin.com.
Russ Jones is a twenty-year award winning journalist and correspondent. He is co-publisher of ChristianPress.com and media consultant. Jones holds degrees from the University of Missouri-Columbia and St. Paul School of Theology. As a former NBC TV reporter he enjoys reporting where evangelical Christian faith and news of the day intersect. Jones is a frequent freelance reporter for Crosswalk.com as well as the Christian Broadcasting Network, Total Living Network and American Family Radio. He has also been published in The Washington Times. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. For more information see russjones.me.