In 1994 I was serving at the First Baptist Church of Williams near Jacksonville, Ala. when a tornado touched down on Palm Sunday near Ragland and cut a trail to Rome, Ga., demolishing hundreds of homes, destroying five church campuses, and taking 29 lives before leaving that area.
Eleven years later I began serving a church on the Gulf Coast and was dealing once again with the aftermath of destructive storms….Hurricanes Ivan, Cindy, Dennis, and Katrina. The experience I gleaned following the Palm Sunday tornado prepared me to better serve and provide leadership in the aftermath of the coastal storms.
Once the storm passes, residents are faced with a haunting reality. Life will never be the same. For many, friends have been injured, homes have been destroyed, and irreplaceable family heirlooms lost. A sense of despair prevails. But for most, at least, life will continue.
Following the Palm Sunday tornado and the coastal hurricanes, the communities I served learned a lot about patience and perseverance. We learned a lot about grace and hope. We learned the importance of looking forward and not backward. We learned that our dreams trumped our nightmares. We learned a lot about faith and life.
At least five crucial lessons learned from storms past helped us to heal and move forward, slowly and progressively:
1. We learned that you have to grieve quickly, then get to work. Once the initial shock of the devastation has been absorbed, it’s time to channel all of your energy to re-building and moving forward. Despite the grief over things lost, there is a unique kind of joy that arises when you begin dreaming of the new things you can build…together. And interestingly, the challenge of re-building had a healing effect.
2. We learned emphatically that God doesn’t exempt folks from tragedy just because they have faith. I remember someone asking me, “Pastor, why do you think God let that tornado hit five churches on Sunday morning?” Since I can’t imagine God sitting in heaven and pushing a “Create Tornado” button, then hitting “Send” to a specific address, I remember responding, “Try drawing a line 55 miles in any direction on an Alabama map without hitting at least five churches.” The Bible says “it rains on the just and the unjust.” Since most churches are comprised of some combination of just and unjust people, I take that to mean that there is no place or people group who are given a free pass from natural disasters.
3. We learned that when the going gets tough, people of faith mobilize and work together cooperatively. After the Palm Sunday tornado, the First Baptist Church in the Williams Community served as a Red Cross Relief Center. We partnered with the Cherokee Electric Cooperative, BellSouth, and FEMA, and each of them did admirable work, eventually. But we also hosted Builders for Christ, Campers on Mission, Mennonite Response teams, Alabama Baptist Disaster Relief teams, and a Latter-Day Saints team.
On the coast, a variety of churches and missional partners organized, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work. Volunteers from faith-based groups often organize quickly and dispatch to the scene, while professional and government groups are often slowed by paperwork and red tape restrictions. I distinctly remember many of the professional workers who partnered with us telling me how they admired the work ethic, the productivity, and the cooperative spirit of the volunteer teams from churches and faith-based organizations.
4. All kinds of talents and skill levels are needed for clean-up and re-building. We were fortunate to have a huge corps of skilled personnel who managed chain saws, dozers, cranes, and front-end loaders. However, we also needed folks to cook food, drive trucks, pick up debris, run errands, care for children, visit the elderly, sweep the floor, manage communications, and do household cleaning. In disaster relief, every job is important and every volunteer has something to offer. Never underestimate the importance of doing all the good you can, where you can, when you can.
If you want to volunteer, always connect with a group such as the Red Cross, the Salvation Army, or a church group. Don’t just strike out on your own.
5. Relief work builds community. We learned that remarkable bonding occurs in the field. The sense of community born among those who work together following a storm forges a spiritual kinship that lasts for a lifetime… or longer.
This week many of us have grieved with and prayed for the people of Oklahoma after this devastating EF5 tornado that has taken 24 lives. In the beginning, I am sure the local residents are feeling shock, anger, and a nearly overwhelming sense of despair. But the people of Oklahoma are resilient. As the rescue and recovery phase comes to a close, residents will be drying their tears, rolling up their sleeves, and getting ready to repair and rebuild, because there are some things deep inside that the strongest storm cannot destroy.