JOPLIN, Mo. (BP) – After tornado alarms sounded in Joplin on May 22, 2011, Pastor John Swadley of Forest Park Baptist Church took refuge here with his family in a crawl space under their home. They listened to radio reports covering the storm and its devastating consequences.
“Someone (a radio report) was walking up the main drag, Range Line Road, saying, ‘Home Depot is gone. Walmart is gone. Pizza Hut is gone. … I was hoping I wouldn’t hear the words, “Forest Park Baptist is gone. “
Fortunately, Swadley did not hear those words. The church building stood just outside the destruction path of tornado EF-5 which killed 158 people and destroyed businesses and homes, causing $ 2.8 billion in damage.
Sadly, the homes of more than 100 families at Forest Park Baptist Church have been damaged or destroyed, Swadley said. But the church building weathered the storm. “It put us in a strategic position to send volunteers to help,” he said.
In the aftermath of the Joplin Tornado, Swadley and his church renewed their commitment to serving the people of Joplin and began a ministry that 10 years later still offers relief to those in need.
The buildings at two other Baptist churches in Joplin did not fare as well as the Baptist building in Forest Park. Harmony Heights Baptist Church and Empire Baptist Church were destroyed.
Charles Burnett, pastor at Harmony Heights, said his church had gathered for its evening service when tornado sirens sounded. With no basement to go to, they dispersed throughout the church to regroup in areas where they would be more sheltered from the storm.
Burnett, who is blind, crouched on the floor in a video room. He heard the tornado pass overhead, sounding like a “freight train and jet engine, only 20 feet from my face.” The tornado ripped off the roof of the building and the rain – mixed with small hail – began to hit it.
Fifty-three were at church service in Harmony Heights when the tornado hit. Three people died.
“It’s very difficult to take back a church where people are dead and injured, and the building is gone, and restart,” Burnett said.
But with the support of residents of Joplin, Missouri and the country, they did – and their new building is right where the old one stood before the storm.
The community also began to rebuild in the days and weeks following the storm that devastated their city. Swadley expresses his gratitude and astonishment as he considers how Joplin has recovered over the past decade, despite the immense trauma and destruction the community has faced.
“I call Joplin’s story a miracle,” he said. “If you were here and saw the devastation, about a third of the buildings in our community have been damaged or destroyed. The field of debris created by the tornado, they said, would fill a football field, including the end areas, and you could stack it as high as the Empire State Building and then another 200 feet higher. This is the amount of debris created by the total tornado. …
“If you see Joplin today, you have to take a good look to see that there has been a tornado. It really is a miracle. “
“We will do better”
On the night of the tornado, Swadley helped some people search for family members who had lived in the worst affected area of Joplin. Eventually the roads became impassable, so Swadley stayed with his car while others continued the search on foot. The tornado had cut power across the city, making that night unusually dark. As he sat alone in the dark, he prayed.
“Lord for many years we have been writing checks to support foreign missions and sending mission teams around the world,” Swadley told God. “From this point on, we’re going to do a better job of serving our own community. “
Of course, this renewed commitment to local ministry did not deter the church’s desire to reach out to the world for Christ. In fact, a mission team from Forest Park Baptist Church visited Thailand in the month following the tornado. “We just felt like it was something we had to do. It is important to share the gospel and not to miss an opportunity ”, Meshelle Thompson, member of the mission team, told Baptist Press at the time.
But Swadley and the Forest Park members continued their commitment to local ministry through action. The church has transformed its bus barn into “Mission Joplin,” a large pantry where the needy can gather supplies and learn about the gospel.
“This ministry continues to this day,” Swadley said. “Even now, most weeks, someone will pray to receive Christ at the Joplin Mission. … So it has become a great way to meet the spiritual and physical needs of people in Jesus name.