Joplin's devastation becomes family's call to mission field
When the EF-5 tornado struck last May 22, 161 people were killed and thousands of homes and businesses were destroyed or damaged. The tornado also stirred the heart of Jackie Jacobs, a math teacher in Science Hill, Ky. He had sensed God's call on his heart, but hadn't known how or what it might mean.
"My heart immediately went out to the people and I began praying for something I could do even though I lived 12 hours away," Jacobs said. "As soon as school was out, I took my sons with me to rebuild what we could with the time we had."
Jacobs' church gave him some money to buy gas and food and sent him on his way in the middle of June last year when mangled buildings, uprooted trees and debris still dominated any major signs of cleanup and recovery.
But connecting his skills to cleanup jobs, especially ones he could do with his sons, was a challenge. Jacobs didn't know where to start, so he contacted his local director of missions in southern Kentucky, who forwarded him to the Kentucky Baptist Convention, then to the Missouri Baptist Convention, then Spring River Baptist Association and its director of missions, Steve Patterson. Patterson and the association were connected enough to point volunteers like Jacobs in the right direction, but the challenge was overwhelming.
"I was getting hundreds of phone calls a day," Patterson said. "It was more than I could handle."
One week in Joplin turned into two for Jacobs.
"There was just a sense of calling," Jacobs said. "I told people I was going back to Kentucky, but just to visit, and that I'd be back [here] in a little while."
Jacobs' wife Rachel wasn't convinced. At least not at first, having been resistant to the idea of him going into ministry.
"I did not want to be a minister's wife," Rachel acknowledged.
But God had been working on her heart four months prior to the tornado to prepare her for the eventual transition.
"Whenever I would hang up the phone while talking to him in Joplin, I would just cry because I knew that's where God was calling us," Rachel said. "We just didn't know what that would mean or what we would be doing."
Jacobs, while in Kentucky, inquired through his phone chain whether there was any funding for a full-time volunteer coordinator but found no options. A few weeks later, he returned with Rachel. But before that week was over, the Spring River recovery team approached Jacobs about being the full-time recovery/volunteer coordinator in Joplin. When the couple compared the duties to lists they had made detailing what they felt God was calling them to do, it was a perfect fit.
That was the genesis of J-Hope, a separate ministry under the umbrella of Spring River and the North American Mission Board's "Missions on the Short Term" (MOST) program, working out of North Main Street Baptist Church where the Jacobs are now members. Since September, the Jacobs have helped find housing (usually at eight local churches) and line up permission and jobs for 1,645 volunteers' skill level (sometimes up to 400 at a given time) who have come through Spring River's office.
"It has really lifted the load off of my shoulders," Patterson said of the Jacobs' ministry. "It's been a tremendous blessing to me to know that I have someone I can pass this off to and continue to do my regular job that God has called me to do."
The only catch is that there is no funding attached to MOST, and Spring River didn't have the finances to bring on any new personnel, let alone support a family of five. But within a week, in answer to the Jacobs' and others' prayers, gifts began rolling in. The Missouri Baptist Convention, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and the Louisiana Baptist Convention gave enough to fund the couple's ministry for at least three years. The Jacobs, along with their three children –- Richard, a freshman; Jonathan, a seventh-grader; and Kristen, a fourth-grader -– officially moved to their new hometown Sept. 9.
It's impossible to tell how long it will take Joplin to fully recover. City leaders' estimates range from three to five years or longer, but Jacobs said the city is moving quickly, thanks in large part to steady work from the Christian community and groups like J-Hope.
"The cleanup has been phenomenal," he said. "The rebuilding has been a little slower than I was anticipating, but a lot of the home destruction was of rental properties, and landlords and leasers simply aren't in any hurry to rebuild them."
The Jacobs are slated to be in Joplin at least three years, depending on the need. After that, they'd like to let their oldest finish up high school in Joplin. But they're leaving it up to God.
"With the experience and background we will have, I can see us going to another disaster," Jacobs said.
Jackie and Rachel now seemingly have a lifetime of experience in just a few short months, but they also have seen a lifetime of blessings.
"You really learn to lean on Him," Jacobs said. "You do all that you can do, schedule the people and trust that it's going to work out. And most times it works out even better than you imagined. It's amazing to see the difference one team can make in a homeowner's life. It's incredible to see them realize that someone loves them that much to come out and help them and then see how much Jesus loves them too. They're floored."
Rachel added, "It's rewarding to see how people's lives change. It also makes you appreciate how you've been blessed, with a home, food and kids."
Joplin still needs volunteers to keep showing Jesus' love to its exhausted residents, Jacobs said.
"Just come and be flexible," he said. "Be ready to do anything. We need electricians and plumbers and those who have specific skills, but more than anything we just need people to be flexible and willing to do anything."
Brian Koonce is a staff writer with The Pathway (www.mbcpathway.com), newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention.