JOPLIN – City leaders estimate that it will be three to five years before Joplin has fully recovered from the May 22, 2011 tornado that killed 161 people and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. One of those leaders, Steve Patterson, the director of missions for Joplin’s Spring River Baptist Association says Christians and the Church have a major role to play in that recovery.
“The quiet little story is that Christians have made a huge impact,” he said. “I don’t see lots of atheist groups or raging sinners coming to help, but I do see lots and lots of Christians.”
The cleanup costs have been so offset by the number of volunteer hours that after insurance and Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) funds had come in, the city actually ran a surplus of $139,000.
“This wasn’t our first rodeo, but it’s definitely the biggest rodeo we’ve been to,” Patterson said. “We were really fortunate in that we had a lot of relationships built before we even had to begin the recovery process.”
The Christian community – and Spring River especially – had made inroads for disaster preparedness long before the most devastating tornado in state history. Disaster Relief (DR) has been a highly visible, thriving ministry at Spring River since tornadoes in 2003 and 2008, and Patterson serves as president of Community Organizations Active in Disasters (COAD) which is the organization overseeing the entire rebuild effort of individual homes. He’s also an officer on the Long-term Recovery Executive Board that is coordinating all the rebuild projects in town. Patterson is also the faith-based chairman of Bright Futures, an initiative through the Joplin Public Schools that has connected him to the school district that saw 10 schools damaged, and six totally destroyed.
“All we have to do is ask, and Steve will have 20 people from some church to do any job we ask,” said Dale Peterson, disaster volunteer coordinator for the Joplin school district. “They have saved our bacon so many times. We are well aware of the impact the faith-based community has had. The church showed up and the community doesn’t take that for granted.”
Julie Dobbs, assistant director of Joplin School’s Bright Futures program, agreed.
“If you look at the connection between the faith community and our schools as we go through all of this, Steve and Spring River have been stepping up. I called and asked for a group to help move an entire middle school, thinking it would take two days and they got it done in two hours and asked what else they could do.”
Patterson said the national spotlight helped bring in more than 115,000 registered volunteers, primarily Christian groups and thousands coming through Spring River. More than 30 college and youth mission teams are slated to come during Spring Break and there is a waiting list for this summer’s World Changers missions event in Joplin, with all of those volunteers staying at First Baptist, Webb City.
“We’ve responded in ways we never dreamed we could,” Patterson said. “It encapsulates every ministry we do in our association and in every church. It’s not all-consuming, but it is time consuming.”
That led to the formation of J-Hope, a separate ministry under the umbrella of Spring River and the North American Mission Board (NAMB) working out of North Main Street Baptist Church and headed by Jackie and Rachel Jacobs, just to coordinate volunteers. All volunteers wanting to work in Joplin can contact them at (417) 850-7790 or via e-mail at email@example.com. This week alone, volunteers from two churches in Tennessee were finishing electrical and ductwork in two homes volunteers are building.
And then there’s what individual churches are doing. Nearly every one of the 50 Baptist churches in the association was affected and two were completely destroyed: Harmony Heights Baptist Church, and Empire Baptist. Those congregations lost 14 lives in the storm, and 237 homes. Forest Park is touching hundreds each week through Mission Joplin. College View is hosting worship services at a tent city just outside of town, and there are countless other stories from each congregation – Baptist and non-Baptist – in the area.
When ABC’s Extreme Home Makeover came to town and built seven homes in seven days, Spring River, Shoal Creek, Barry County, Greene County, Lawrence County and Ozark-Prairie Baptist associations DR volunteers, along with students from the Crowder College and Missouri Southern State University’s Baptist Student Unions (BSUs), provided around-the-clock hot meals for every volunteer and Calvary Baptist Church hosted the pre-build rally for the show.
“We had a lot of people working directly with the people from the show and sharing their faith with them,” Patterson said. “Several of them are believers.”
The week after Extreme Home Makeover built their homes, Habitat for Humanity built 10 homes in 14 days, with each volunteer being fed by Shoal Creek’s DR feeding unit.
“It was a great example of cooperation, and a tremendous witness,” Patterson said.
BRIAN KOONCE/staff writer