April Tornadoes: The Rest of the Story
The small town of Smithville, Mississippi, was almost destroyed by a tornado with a damage path that was 37.2 miles long and half a mile wide on April 27. In less than ten seconds, hundreds of families were left homeless. Churches, businesses?even the local police station?were completely wiped out by the EF-5 tornado. Casualties included 23 dead and 40 injured. Families in other nearby towns, counties, and states experienced similar devastation as well from the largest tornado outbreak in history.
I was working at a small hospital just over an hour's drive from Smithville when the devastating news began to fill the television screens. Glimpses of damage and personal stories revealed the magnitude of destruction. My heart felt weighted with sadness and compassion for those who, in a matter of seconds, were left with absolutely nothing but the clothes on their backs.
In that moment I was reminded of my Disaster Relief Training weekend with Hope Force International I had attended several years ago. Upon completion I was commissioned as a reservist with them and the teachings from that weekend quickly filled my mind as I listened to the news reports from Smithville: the importance of being available for all needs through a Ministry of Presence and the reminder that "each disaster is local."
Little did I know a simple phone call two days later from Hope Force co-founders, Jack and Cherie Minton, would put me right in the middle of Smithville. They requested I consider going to Smithville to assess the needs and plan ways in which Hope Force might serve the community. I agreed, and set out for Smithville, knowing no one and trusting God to go before me.
I will never forget arriving just outside Smithville and walking into a room filled with the grief and burdens of young men and women affected by the disaster. They were all filled with their own stories to tell and hearts ready to rebuild. I was nervous despite the fact that I had already completed the Hope Force Reservist training. What did I have to offer? What could I say? I remembered The Ministry of Presence: the importance of listening and caring. It was all I had to offer, but it was enough. After several hours of listening, someone suggested that I needed to see the destruction for myself. My guide was a young elected judge for the county, who had been one of a few first responders to the area. Again, I listened. Our time riding in his vehicle lead to a friendship that allowed me to not only speak into his life, but to walk with him as he soon became the VP of the Long-term Recovery Committee that would lead Smithville in their recovery efforts.
As I stood looking over what had once been a neighborhood, I placed a quick call to my pastor. All I could say came out in one question. "Are we going to do anything"? His response was, "tell me what we need to do," and the ball began to roll.
That call lead to the awesome privilege of sitting on the leadership board of a newly formed organization called Adopt-a-Family (AAF). AAF started as an organization who, acting on faith and the desire to be the body of Christ in action, enlisted area churches to "adopt" individual families suffering loss from the storms. The idea was that an entire congregation (or a coalition of smaller congregations) could come alongside an individual family to ensure they had what they needed to bring life to "a new normal" by helping them rebuild their lives and their homes. Through this organization, over 30 families were adopted by approximately 25 churches.
My church adopted a family in need of a total rebuild and I have found myself leading our efforts. After the initial meeting with our family, I received a text message at 3:30 in the morning from the wife saying two simple but heartfelt words, "thank you". The following days gave me the opportunity to minister to the family's 14 year old daughter who was fearful of rebuilding on the same site. We were able to assure her that her fears were being heard and her input was wanted. Now she is very excited about her new home and bedroom.
Today we are just about six months from that tragic day in April. The media attention that highlighted the initial crisis is gone. The many government and non-government agencies that responded have left and many of the relief workers are headed home, leaving the locals to carry on. The road to recovery is getting shorter, but WE still have a long way to go. Several days ago I watched with great joy as several hundred people lined the main street of Smithville for their annual Christmas parade. Evidence of the destruction was everywhere but those that lined the streets saw only the Hope. They were overcoming.
I would like to thank Hope Force for showing me that as we walk in the Ministry of Presence, God opens doors for our lives to be touched and forever changed. Ministering to the people of Smithville has been a wonderful opportunity and privilege.
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