JOPLIN, Mo. (BP)--The sky over Joplin, Mo., continued to spit light rain and clouds threatened on the horizon four days after one of the nationís deadliest tornadoes plowed through the heart of the city. Search and rescue teams continued their hopeful trek through miles of debris.
And through it all, a spirit of resolute hope spurred on this city of 50,000. In the middle of the work clearing rubble were Southern Baptist disaster relief volunteers by the score.
Chainsaw crews from Missouri and Oklahoma clocked hundreds of hours helping churches and residents clear tons of fallen trees.
"Iím just stunned today, speechless. Please keep the people of Joplin in your prayers," said Missouri Baptist Convention interim executive director Jay Hughes, who was touring the site of the devastation along with North American Mission Board president Kevin Ezell.
One of the first disaster relief (DR) volunteers Hughes and Ezell visited was also a storm victim, Gary Hunley. Hunley, a Missouri DR volunteer who has already been helping with the response, was taking time to search the remains of his home Wednesday (May 25).
"I believe the Lord allowed this to help me learn how to relate to people," said Hunley as he and his wife, Twyla, combed through their belongings. They are members of First Baptist Church in Oronogo, Mo, which is 10 miles from Joplin.
"We had downsized," said Twyla. "We had just gotten the house the way we wanted it. Now it is gone."
Twyla credited Godís protection and her husbandís devotion for their survival. "The wind was blowing so hard. We were praying. I did not think we were going to make it. Gary never let go of me. We never stopped praying, and God never let go of us, either."
"It was very scary -- all the noise and the air pressure," he said. "The wind was so strong it felt like 10 men trying to push the door in. Then everything started breaking apart. We asked God to help us. When it was over, everything else was gone but He held our hand."
Said Ezell, "If we could see peopleís spiritual needs in the same way we see physical needs, we would be much quicker to attempt to help them. You look at the incredible destruction -- everything is gone -- and a few blocks away everything is fine. Spiritually, it is the same way: you look at one family and they are fine. Just down the block another family is falling apart."
Southern Baptists, Ezell said, have the opportunity to meet both spiritual and physical needs through disaster relief. He echoed Hughesí call for prayer for the people of Joplin, and those affected by storms across the country.
(Watch a video of Ezell speaking from Joplin at http://www.namb.net/DR_update_joplin/
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon addressed members of the faith-based DR response teams in the city and told them that they had the opportunity to minister in critical ways, thanking them for their efforts. He said search and rescue efforts would continue through the end of the week. The death toll in Joplin stands at 125 and is expected to climb.
President Obama will visit the city on Sunday and take part in a citywide memorial service for the victims of the storm, the governor said.
Following the governorís dialog, Ezell and Hughes met with Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate, who thanked the men for the work of Southern Baptist DR. Also at the meeting was David Myers, director of the White House Center for Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships with the Department of Homeland Security.
Missouri Baptist DR director Rick Seaton said assessment teams were still at work Wednesday.
"We have seven Missouri chainsaw units out, and two from Oklahoma," Seaton said. "We also have a shower unit operating and we have 11 chaplains working today. We expect to have a feeding unit up and operating when the city is ready for that."
The current Southern Baptist DR incident command center located at the Baptist Student Union of Missouri Southern State University might move in the next few days, Seaton said. Housing is being provided at College View Baptist Church, he said.
Few places suffered more destruction than Harmony Heights Baptist Church. What little is left of the church, located across the street from the heavily damaged Joplin High School, makes it even more remarkable that only three people were killed when the storm hit during Sunday night services.
"Pastor Charlie Burnett was preaching when the sirens went off. There were 53 people there and they moved into the interior hallways," said Steve Patterson, Spring River Baptist Association director of missions.
One of the survivors was Greg Hailey, who had been attending Harmony Heights for about five months.
"One of our members is a weather spotter and he was telling us that conditions were right for tornadoes," Hailey said. Then we heard the siren. But when you live here, how many times do you hear a siren and think nothing of it? Then the siren went off a second time and they told us a tornado was on the ground. Pastor Burnett told us to move to the center of the hallways."
The next thing Hailey knew, he was covered in debris. When he was able to pull himself out of the rubble, nothing was left of the church. One car was thrown into the sanctuary and the parking lot was a mangle of twisted vehicles.
"I started helping pull other people out," Hailey said. Pastor Burnett, who is blind, had no way of knowing that a steel I-beam missed his head by inches.
And near the devastated Saint Johnís medical complex Empire Baptist Church was also erased. While no members were injured at the church, many of their homes were also obliterated.
But in the midst of the tragedy, jubilant reunions brought hope. Gary Hunley was embraced by friend and fellow disaster relief volunteer Ron Crow in front of what little was left of the Hunley home. Crow has been helping organize the efforts in Joplin and is pastor of First Baptist Church in Diamond, Mo., about 17 miles from Joplin. The two men have worked together on DR projects.
"When I saw the destruction and knew it was in his area I screamed out, ĎWhereís Gary?í" Crow said. With all the other DR activity the men were not reunited until Wednesday.
"Gary is a chainsaw guy. The first time we took Gary on a DR response it was about eight months after he had become a Christian," Crow said. "We arrived on site in Florida and we were ready to unload the trailer. I was looking for Gary and asking people where heíd slipped off to. Then I saw him. He was on the front porch with the homeowner sharing the Gospel."
Said Hunley, "I do believe God allowed this to happen so I can do a better job of helping people. You just donít know where to start. You donít want to let people help you because you think other people need it more. Then you realize you need the help. Where do you start? You pick up one thing and then you think you need to contact the insurance company. Your mind is just racing.
"Southern Baptists have been a true blessing to me. They have helped me grow in my faith. When you face something like this, you need to have your life in order. You never know how long you have."
Some chaplains serving in the Joplin response were accompanying chainsaw crews Wednesday while others walked the miles of shattered homes. One pair was a father and son team, Steve and Matt Tanner. Both men also happen to be directors of mission, Steve in Mexico, Mo., and his son in Poplar Bluff, Mo.
"We walked the neighborhoods and ministered to people," Steve said. "One lady had nothing left but a slab. She was knocked out in the storm. When she came to, everything was gone. She was concerned about the mental health facility next door where three people were killed."
Said Matt Miller, "Another woman was still dealing with the trauma of finding a young child dead in the street in front of her home after the storm. We did a lot of praying today."
People can help by praying and donating financially, said Hughes of the Missouri Baptist Convention.
"We are saddened by the destruction, but we are committed to assisting the community of Joplin in any way we can for as long as they need the help," Hughes said. "We would ask people to consider how they can be involved in the long-term support for the community."
While it is still too early to plan long-term rebuild, one thing that will keep Joplin on people's minds is a World Changers student mission week set for July 25-30 in the city this summer.
"We are committed to the project in Joplin," said John Bailey, team leader for World Changers and PowerPlant at NAMB. "We have had it on the schedule for the last year. We are committed to be there. It may not look like a traditional World Changers project where we work on roofs, but we will be ministering to the people of Joplin. If a church wants their youth to be involved, they can still register for Joplin." For information about the Joplin World Changers project visit www.world-changers.net.
Joe Conway is a writer for the North American Mission Board. To donate to NAMB's disaster relief fund, visit www.namb.net
and hit the "donate now" button. Other ways to donate are by calling 1-866-407-NAMB (6262) or mailing checks to NAMB, P.O. Box 116543, Atlanta, GA 30368-6543. Checks should be designated for "Storms 2011." Donations can also be sent via texting "NAMBDR" to the number "40579." A one-time donation of $10 will be added to the caller's mobile phone bill or deducted from any prepaid balance.