WEBB CITY, Mo. (BP) -- Any church would be thrilled to see its Sunday School rooms packed with strangers. But these strangers also have unrolled their sleeping bags and settled in for a week.
First Baptist Church in Webb City, Mo., just a few minutes north of Joplin, has opened its doors to thousands of relief volunteers over the last 12 months. It is one of several Joplin-area churches that have housed workers since an EF-5 tornado killed 161 and destroyed or damaged thousands of homes and businesses on May 22 of last year.
"This March alone there were so many students here I can't even guess," First Baptist pastor John Sherwood said, referring to the 400-plus college and high school students who spent spring break on mission in Joplin.
The church hosted groups every week from the end of May last year through the start of school in the fall.
"We took a picture of how we needed the rooms set up for Sunday School and let them have at it," Sherwood said.
Every church in the area was affected by the deadly tornado, and FBC Webb City was no different. One family lost a brother and sister-in-law while 13 of the church's families lost homes. The church assisted in arranging their housing with other members, salvaging their remaining belongings and helping them move once they found permanent housing.
Until recently, the 130-year-old church would not have had the space for such large groups, but another dramatic weather event -- an ice storm in 2007 -- collapsed their auditorium and spurred a building program.
"We're fortunate we got that done before the tornado came," Shepherd said. "We wouldn't have been able to have the kind of ministry we do otherwise."
So First Baptist had plenty of education/bunk space, but they were ill-equipped to accommodate the volunteers for showers. For that, the church coordinated with local Baptist disaster relief shower units that set up in the church's parking lot.
The church had to set some boundaries and schedule the volunteers around certain ministries and even weddings, but Sherwood said it has been a blessing.
"The ministry of the church still has to go on," he said. "There were adjustments that had to be made, but nothing major.
"A lot of the groups would stay and worship with us on Sunday," the pastor added, "and that was always a great blessing."
Brian Koonce is a staff writer with The Pathway (www.mcbpathway.com
), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.