By Kim Plummer Krull
Every morning when Kimberly Johnson arrives at work, the Immanuel Lutheran Church secretary says her telephone message box is full.
“We get calls from all over the country from people wanting to help, wanting to volunteer, wanting to know how we’re doing,” said Johnson, a staff and congregation member at the Joplin, Mo., church that has been caring for its hurting community ever since a deadly tornado destroyed about one-third of the city.
A month after the May 22 twister hit, Immanuel and the church’s Martin Luther School continued to serve as a center where people whose lives are turned upside down go for a hot meal, medical care, cleaning supplies and, perhaps most important, a listening ear.
Church members and staff, reinforced by volunteers from throughout the country, sit with weary survivors during a meal and help them find an item in the gym filled with donated supplies.
“Many [relief] places are starting to close down, but we’re still really busy. We want to continue to meet needs as they change, as people go through this disaster,” Johnson said. “We want to help and support people for as long as they need it.”
Just as needs continue, so does the tornado death toll. Four weeks after the EF-5 twister, another person died of storm-related injuries on June 20, raising the number of confirmed deaths to 155. That number includes two young children, ages 6 and 8, from a family in Joplin who are members at First Lutheran Church in nearby Neosho.
The homes of as many as 40 Immanuel church and school families are among the 8,000 damaged or destroyed by the storm. Members of First Lutheran, Neosho, and Good Shepherd, Carthage, also lost homes and apartments in Joplin. Immanuel’s church, school and parsonage each had roof damage.
Three days after the twister ripped a 14-mile path of destruction, LCMS World Relief and Human Care’s (WR-HC) Rev. Glenn F. Merritt, director of Disaster Response, and Rev. Carlos Hernandez, director of Districts and Congregations, arrived in southwestern Missouri to help assess needs and get the ball rolling on grant support. The pastors worked with LCMS Missouri District President Rev. Ray Mirly and Immanuel and Martin Luther School leaders, including Rev. Gregory Mech, the church’s pastor.
“This will be an exceptionally long-term recovery,” said Merritt, a disaster response veteran. “The magnitude of this destruction far exceeds what we respond to, with the possible exception of after Hurricane Katrina [in New Orleans] and after the tornado in Greensburg, Kan. Recovery is going to be measured in years, not weeks or months.”
As Immanuel prepared for its fifth week of disaster relief, congregation leaders were looking into opening church or school doors for child care. “That’s a big need now because so many of the community’s day care facilities and homes that provide child care were damaged,” said Jeremy Schamber, Martin Luther School principal.
With support from area Lutheran churches and the local Thrivent chapter, Immanuel has served as many as 300 meals a day, at the school and by delivery into the community.
Feeling ‘at home’
“People have said they feel like they’re at home when they eat dinner here and get a home-cooked meal,” Schamber said. “When someone’s home is gone, what better compliment can you get?”
Medical volunteers at the church’s free clinic continue to treat tornado-related wounds, help with prescriptions for lost glasses and give tetanus shots. The latter, Johnson said, can be hard to find.
Other volunteers tackle debris cleanup. “That’s going to be a big need for a long time,” said Rev. Chad Trunkhill, pastor of mission and outreach at Resurrection Lutheran Church, Sunset Hills, Mo., who has trekked to Joplin twice and serves as volunteer coordinator with Lutheran Church Charities (LCC).
The Addison, Ill.,-based LCMS Recognized Service Organization is organizing volunteers on Immanuel’s behalf. Volunteers are asked to register at www.lutheranchurchcharities.org.
LCC also is providing trained “comfort dogs” to help people communicate their feelings about the storm and ease stress. “We have one [canine] staying with us, and it’s just amazing how people are responding,” Schamber said.
Along with a steady stream of volunteers, Schamber says Immanuel appreciates the outpouring of prayer and financial support. “Schools and congregation members from all over the world, from as far away as Australia, have said they are praying for us,” Schamber said. “It’s inspiring.”
Immediately after the tornado, WR-HC provided an initial $25,000 grant to Immanuel to help meet emergency needs. Since then, caring donors have helped the Synod’s mercy arm send another $57,075 grant to help families with temporary housing, food, and medical and clothing expenses.
More WR-HC grants are in the works to assist with long-term recovery.
Looking ahead, Immanuel refuses to let the tornado cancel vacation Bible school, set for July 17-21. When the new academic year begins later this summer, Martin Luther School plans to offer counseling to students struggling with storm-related issues. Leaders are discussing how the school and church also can assist young people at other local schools that were damaged or destroyed.
A year ago, Schamber says, if someone had asked how Immanuel and Martin Luther School would respond if a powerful tornado hit Joplin, he never would have guessed that establishing a relief center and serving so many urgent needs were possible.
‘Spirit … is working’
“Obviously, the Holy Spirit is working through us, through our leaders and through our congregation,” he said, adding that support from people throughout the country has been “amazing.”
By mid-June, WR-HC donors had given $682,082 to help the church reach out in Joplin and in other communities hit hard by the spring’s deadly tornado season.
To make a gift:
- Mail checks (noting “Tornado Disaster Relief” in the memo line) to LCMS World Relief and Human Care, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
- Call toll-free 888-930-4438.
- Give online at www.lcms.org/disaster/tornado.
Kim Plummer Krull is a freelance writer and member of St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, Des Peres, Mo.
This story was produced by LCMS World Relief and Human Care.
Posted June 28, 2011