JOPLIN – More than 100,000 people have given their time and resources to help the city of Joplin rebuild after last year’s devastating tornado, but one family answered God’s call to go a few steps further. They moved from their home and steady jobs to help coordinate volunteers in Joplin. From Kentucky.When the EF-5 tornado struck last May 22, it killed 161 and destroyed thousands of homes and businesses. It also stirred the heart of Jackie Jacobs, a math teacher in Science Hill, Ky. He’d sensed God’s calling on his heart, but didn’t know how or what that would mean.
“My heart immediately went out to the people and I began praying for something I could do even though I lived 12 hours away,” Jacobs said. “As soon as school was out, I took my sons with me to rebuild what we could with the time we had.”
Jacobs’ church gave him some money to buy gas and food, and sent him on his way. That was the middle of June last year, when mangled buildings, uprooted trees and debris still dominated any major signs of clean up and recovery. There was no shortage of work to be done.
But connecting his skills to cleanup jobs, especially ones he could do with his sons, was a challenge. Jacobs didn’t know where to start, so contacted his local director of missions in southern Kentucky, who forwarded him to the Kentucky Baptist Convention, who forwarded him to the Missouri Baptist Convention, who forwarded him to Spring River Baptist Association and its director of missions, Steve Patterson. Patterson and the association were connected enough to point volunteers like Jacobs in the right direction, but it was overwhelming.
“I was getting hundreds of phone calls a day,” Patterson said. “It was more than I could handle.”
One week in Joplin turned into two for Jacobs.
“There was just a sense of calling,” Jacobs said. “I told people I was going back to Kentucky, but just to visit, and that I’d be back home in a little while.”
Jackie’s wife, Rachel wasn’t convinced. At least not at first. She’d been resistant to the idea of him going into ministry.
“I did not want to be a minister’s wife,” she said.
But God had been working on her heart four months prior the tornado to prepare her for the eventual transition.
“Whenever I would hang up the phone while talking to him in Joplin, I would just cry because I knew that’s where God was calling us,” Rachel said. “We just didn’t know what that would mean or what we would be doing.”
Jackie inquired all through his previous phone chain whether there was any funds for a full-time volunteer coordinator, but kept meeting with no. A few weeks later, he returned with Rachel. Before that week was over, the Spring River recovery team approached them about being a full-time recovery/volunteer coordinator in Joplin. When they compared the duties to lists they had made detailing what they felt God calling them to do, it was a perfect fit.
That was the genesis of J-Hope, a separate ministry under the umbrella of Spring River and the North American Mission Board’s (NAMB) Missions on the Short Term (MOST) program, working out of North Main Street Baptist Church where the Jacobs are now members. Since September, the Jacobs have helped find housing (usually at eight local churches) and line up permission and jobs for 1,645 volunteers’ skill level (sometimes up to 400 at a given time) that have come through Spring River’s office.
“It has really lifted the load off of my shoulders,” Patterson said. “It’s been a tremendous blessing to me to know that I have someone I can pass this off to and continue to do my regular job that God has called me to do.”
The only catch is that there is no funding attached to MOST, and Spring River didn’t have the finances to bring on any new personnel, let alone support a family of five. But within a week, in answer to the Jacobs’ and others’ prayers, gifts began rolling in. The MBC, the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma and the Louisiana Baptist Convention gave enough to fund the Jacobs’ ministry for at least three years. The Jacobs, along with their three kids – Richard, a freshman; Jonathan, a seventh grader; and Kristen, a fourth grader – officially moved to their new hometown Sept. 9.
It’s impossible to tell how long it will take Joplin to fully recover. City leaders’ estimates range from three to five years or longer, but Jackie said the city is moving quickly, thanks in large part to steady work from the Christian community and groups like J-Hope.
“The cleanup has been phenomenal,” he said. “The rebuilding has been a little slower than I was anticipating, but a lot of the home destruction was of rental properties and landlords and leasers simply aren’t in any hurry to rebuild them.”
The Jacobs are slated to be in Joplin at least three years, depending on the need. After that, they’d like to let their oldest finish up high school here. But they’re leaving it up to God.
“With the experience and background we will have, I can see us going to another disaster,” Jackie said.
The Jacobs now seemingly have a lifetime of experience in just a few short months, but they also have seen a lifetime of blessings.
“You really learn to lean on Him,” Jackie said. “You do all that you can do, schedule the people and trust that it’s going to work out. And most times it works out even better than you imagined. It’s amazing to see the difference one team can make in a homeowner’s life. It’s incredible to see them realize that someone loves them that much to come out and help them and then see how much Jesus loves them too. They’re floored.”
“It’s rewarding to see how people’s lives change,” Rachel said. “It also makes you appreciate how you’ve been blessed, with a home, food and kids.”
Joplin still needs volunteers to keep showing Jesus’ love and to keep “flooring,” its exhausted residents, Jackie said.
“Just come and be flexible,” he said. “Be ready to do anything. We need electricians and plumbers and those who have specific skills, but more than anything we just need people to be flexible and willing to do anything.”