JOPLIN – Empire Baptist Church, like all of Joplin, is taking the first steps toward recovery and rebuilding. But for this small church, the process of moving forward began even before any storm damage.
The church suffered two blows that Sunday. Not only did the EF-5 tornado that killed 160 destroy their church’s building, but their pastor of just six weeks resigned that morning; their pulpit is gone and even if it were still there, there’s no one to stand in it.
The rubble that once was Empire Baptist Church’s 103-year old building has been bulldozed. The broken glass, the soaked carpet and shattered bricks have become a clean, empty lot. Removal crews even filled in its basement.
That now filled-in basement holds a special place in the heart of one of Empire’s deacons, Jerry Douglas. It’s where he and his wife, Ruth, rode out the tornado.
“Down in the basement we couldn’t hear any sirens or anything, but all at once the electricity went out and we started hearing a noise,” Jerry said. “I called Ruth into the room where I was and once she walked through the doors, it wasn’t two seconds before they were sucked shut. Then the noise got louder. People say ‘it was like a freight train,’ but it was much louder. It sounded like I was standing behind a jet engine. We heard glass breaking and things hitting the building, but even then we didn’t realize what it was.”
It was, of course, the deadliest tornado in Missouri history. The winds tore the roof off the auditorium and collapsed the brick walls into the sanctuary. Its heavy wooden beams lay splintered in the middle of Empire Ave. It was just two blocks away from the severely damaged St. John’s Hospital that made national headlines. But then things became silent, and Jerry and Ruth climbed up the stairs into the only part of the church that still had four walls.
Luckily, they were the only ones in the church at the time, and they didn’t even suffer a scratch. Miraculously, no one in the congregation was killed or seriously injured, although two members’ homes were destroyed, and three more seriously damaged (Douglas’s equipment rental business was destroyed by the storm as well).
Empire’s 25 or so people have been meeting in homes for worship since May 22, but with the bulldozing of their lot two weeks ago, the church is taking the first step toward rebuilding and returning as a shining light of Jesus in that neighborhood.
“We’re trying to find a doublewide to meet in,” Douglas said, “but they’re scarce. We’ve met with an architect. It’s only going to be one story, but we will rebuild that basement.
Douglas is certainly invested in Empire’s recovery. He began coming to Empire when he was six weeks old, and jokingly tells people he was “born on the front pew.” In construction all his working life, he even laid the bricks on one of the pillars that stood beside the church’s pulpit. The pillar he worked on, he is quick to point out with a smile, withstood the storm with every brick in its place.
“We really want to get back on that corner street to let people know we’re still here and we’re still part of this community,” he said. “I think God is going to use this to wake us up. We’ve been too satisfied with where we are and what we are, and this is our opportunity to get out and make bringing people to Jesus our top priority.”
BRIAN KOONCE/staff writer