The Unforgettable Sunday

It was Sunday night and my wife and I were sitting in our screened-in porch with our kids, watching the storm. My son, Nick, was collecting hail to see if it tasted like ice. But any feeling that this was an ordinary storm would soon melt away. I received a text from my good friend John Walsh, who lives about five minutes away, telling me that a tornado touched down in his neighborhood, taking out a few trees. But still, at that moment, I had no reason to believe that this storm would prove catastrophic.

My church, St Paul's, after the storm

At 5:41 p.m. on May 22, the eighth-deadliest tornado in U.S. history hit my hometown of Joplin, Missouri. Stretching almost a mile wide and running 13 miles long, it completely destroyed everything in its path. Tragically, 141 people lost their lives. I was very lucky because neither my family nor home were physically damaged in any way, but most of our church was blown away. Many of my friends lost everything. People who were on the ground when the tornado touched down say they waited a breathless 40 seconds for the destruction to subside. Forty seconds changed so much here in Joplin.

The media coverage of the loss of people and property has provided powerful images, but frankly doesn’t do it justice. Unless you are here to see the swath of destruction, you can’t even begin to understand what that storm did to our town. Imagine standing on a street corner that you have been to over a hundred times and not being able to recognize anything you see, or driving to a spot where good friends used to live and not being able to find their home because it isn’t there anymore, and there are no landmarks or street signs to guide your way.

My good friend and pastor, Aaron Brown of St. Paul’s Church, said it best last Sunday when he told our church family that Jesus never said there wouldn’t be pain and tragedy in our lives. He never said that it was going to be easy. He did, however, say that He would always be there to guide us and carry us when things get tough. He was there when Will Norton was being tossed around in a car. He heard Will praying out loud as his father watched him get sucked out of the car, only to be found dead a few days later at the bottom of a nearby pond. He was also there for my friends, the Vasquez family, who couldn’t make it inside to take cover. He was watching as Frank, the father, rode it out in his car (which absolutely should have been destroyed) while his wife and daughter held on to the security bars on their front door, as the house and front porch disappeared around them.

Where the Vasquez family home once stood.

I can’t begin to tell you how many tears we’ve cried since that Sunday. I’ve cried with friends as we dug through piles of debris looking for even one family photo. I cried with an elderly lady after we cut a tree off of her house when she didn’t have anyone else to help her. A group of us cleaned up my new friend David’s house and we all prayed and cried together, in the middle of the rubble, for his mother, who was killed sitting next to him when the tornado hit. And I cried by myself in the middle of the street when a family of four pulled up in a truck with chainsaws to help, having driven all the way from Kansas City.

On the positive side, I have witnessed some incredible acts of kindness. I watched as people who were waiting in a food line for over an hour left their place to aid a volunteer who needed help carrying bottled water. Children emptied their piggy banks, and adults opened their homes to those that didn’t have one anymore. Probably the best part of it all was working alongside people from all over the country – people who got into their car and drove to our small town to help complete strangers.

Children, and adults, from all over the U.S. have participated in the United for Joplin movement.

Even though we are trying to get back to a normal pace of life, we are still numb from the tornado. Replacing buildings and vehicles will be easy, but replacing the friends and family we lost, or the memories that were blown away, will be harder. The one thing I know for sure after seeing this town in action is that the people of Joplin are very capable of rebuilding what was lost and coming back bigger and better. This is a town of family and friends who are strongly anchored in faith and with that anything is possible.

One piece of advice I have for anyone reading this blog is to get involved in your town. If you do not make it a habit to volunteer where you live, you are missing out on one of the great joys of life. There is NOTHING like the feeling you get from helping someone less fortunate than you. In the end, I promise that you’ll be the one who benefits.

If you want to get involved and help Joplin, please consider the following ways:

Tornado Statistics (as of 6/7/11):

  • 141 fatalities, 1,150 injuries
  • Severely damaged or destroyed more than 400 Joplin businesses, affecting up to 4,500 workers
  • Estimated loss of over 8,000 housing units (homes and apartments)
  • Destroyed 25-30% of the city
  • Insured losses are expected to be between $1-3 billion
  • Almost 7,000 volunteers on any given day

9 thoughts on “The Unforgettable Sunday

  1. God Bless you and all those affected by this tragedy Mark. Your blog brought me to tears–my heart breaks for all of you. Sending lots of love and prayers of strength and peace of mind to those that need it.

    1. Thank you Karin, the note means a lot to me and I will pass all of these comments to friends here in Joplin.

  2. I just found this post and yes you are right, without being there it is impossible to truly understand the magnitude of loss your town has experienced.

    I look forward to your future posts as Joplin comes together and rebuilds for the future.

    In the meantime know that many Americans are reaching out in prayer and actions to support you.

  3. Hi Mark,

    Thank you for sharing your story about the tragedy that was experienced in Joplin. Living in Australia, we are fortunate that we don’t suffer from tornados, so your personal story, adds an extra dimension that TV coverage doesn’t always successfully communicate. However, like most countries, we do suffer from floods, bush fires, droughts, etc, and all of these, are no doubt ‘meant to test us, and our beliefs’.
    I was pleased to hear that you and your family survived the devastation, and hope that, Joplin recovers quickly.
    Allyn Beard

  4. Mark:
    We were all glad to hear that you and your family made it through OK but it’s heartbreaking to hear these stories first hand. Our our thoughts prayers go out to all the victims in Joplin.

    Deb Chapman

  5. It still is hard for me to believe that the tornado was only with us for such a short time. I stood at the back door of our church facing west watching the massive rotating cloud as if in a trance. I became aware of the horrific sound realizing it was a tornado about the time I began to see flying shingles and other debris.

    I still have a hard time sleeping but at least I’m not waking up ever few hours thinking I hear it all over again. Even though it has affected me and at times I have some major issues, I know without a doubt my Jesus was and is always with me!!!

    Thank you for posting!!!

    Until this week, as my hubby and I are on a much needed rest and relaxation vacation, I have worked on relief daily at our church, Joplin Church of God, since the beginning. Joplin is my home and I will do all possible to see it rebuilt…even better than before. We will overcome. This is a time we must lay aside our own personal differences and work together for the same goal: To become better not bitter, live more blessed instead of down and out and choosing on purpose to make a greater difference in all who come to our wonderful city!! We do win!! I read the back of the Book!!!

  6. Hi Mark,
    Thank you for your eloquent description of Joplin. I heard a rabbi say, “God enters through our wounds.”
    It seems so.
    See you soon,

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