JOPLIN — Shortly after a monster tornado ravaged a third of Joplin, the large message sign at Forest Park Baptist Church in Joplin announced Pastor John Swadley’s morning message for the following Sunday: “Where Do We Go From Here?”
With thousands of residents overwhelmed at losing loved ones and friends, homes and workplaces and obvious concerns about where to begin rebuilding a city, it was the unspoken question on the minds of many people.
Shortly after the tornado shattered the calm in the southwestern Missouri town on May 22, Swadley decided to set aside the sermon series he had been preaching and start a new one to help his members and the community deal with the crisis. Just days after the tornado struck, he said he would give at least four Sundays to “Where Do We Go From Here?”
“We have a lot of people who have set their sights on things above and not on things below,” Swadley said in an interview. “The primary response from these people has been these are just things.
“Before this happened, I had felt the spirit of God leading us to do a better job of reaching our Judea,” he said, noting that the congregation has been engaged with missions projects in several countries.
“Now we believe God wants us to show his love to our community, and we’re excited about doing it,” he explained.
The congregation has been granted use of two warehouses and a bus barn that will serve as distribution centers for supplies and other items residents will be able to use to get back on their feet.
The congregation also plans to provide financial assistance to help people who lost their jobs when their places of employment were destroyed or who lost their homes, noting bills and mortgage payments continue.
“About 45 percent of those who lost their homes or apartments in Joplin were uninsured or severely underinsured,” he said. “If people want to provide what is truly needed, they should ask their church to collect a generous offering.”
On May 29, the normal Sunday morning crowd of 1,000 swelled to 1,600, Swadley said. While many regulars were not present because they lost their homes, some new people from the community came looking for spiritual help and many volunteers who came to Joplin to render help were present.
“…I'm calling on the church to rise up and be the church,” the pastor of Forest Park Baptist Church in Joplin told worshippers. He challenged members to make specific commitments to help people reeling from the effects of the devastating tornado.
The lead pastor of the three-campus congregation preached from Luke 8:41-48 about Jesus’ encounter with Jairus, whose daughter Jesus raised from the dead, and the woman who was healed from a long-term bleeding malady by touching Jesus’ robe and receiving power from him.
“We have 55 families who lost their home or apartment,” the pastor noted in his sermon. “We have dozens who have no job because their place of employment was destroyed.”
Swadley acknowledged that those present and others in Joplin were processing different but powerful emotions.
“Some are incredibly thankful that they were spared; some are grieving because close friends and loved ones were not spared,” he said. “Some are afraid because they don't have a job, or don't know where they'll live. When tornado sirens go off in the future, it will never be like in the past. Fear is a real issue for lots of people.
“Some are angry because they lost things that can't be replaced or they haven't been able to get help,” Swadley acknowledged. “But a question that we’re all asking is a great question: ‘Where do we go from here?’”
Assuring members that “God wants to heal your hurt” and “God wants to give you hope,” the pastor said, “God wants us to help others.” He reminded them of Jesus’ charge to the 12 disciples in Luke 9:1-2 to “preach the kingdom of God and to heal the sick.”
“And that assignment has never been more important than right now; people need spiritual help,” he emphasized. “I want to help people be strong inside so they can deal with all the mess on the outside.”
But Jesus also gave them the assignment of helping with people's physical needs,” he said. “And I'm calling on the church to rise up and be the church.”
Referring to a handout response form, he challenged members to complete and return it.
Those who could field phone calls from people needing help should check that box, he said. “We’re serving [meals to] about 1,000 people a day,” he added, pointing to a need for more food preparation and cleanup volunteers.
“Maybe you could help us receive volunteers and direct them to places where they can help,” he said. In addition, workers are needed for the warehouses to enable collection and distribution of supplies that Joplin residents will likely need over the next 12 months and probably longer.
Swadley challenged members to volunteer for debris removal, becoming the hands of Jesus “by helping clean up this mess,” and he urged others to volunteer to deliver supplies to the needy who have no way of getting to the church to pick them up themselves.
“We’re going to have a lot more people coming to our church and we want their children to leave saying, ‘Mom and Dad, we want to come back,’” Swadley explained. “Please sign up to help in Kid City (the children’s ministry).
“We need musicians and café workers,” he said. “We need all hands on deck so that our church can be at its very best."
He challenged the congregation to consider yet another commitment by filling in a blank line on the form: I will step up my giving. “We have tithers who are no longer able to tithe,” the pastor said. “We need your support like we’ve never needed it.”
Many who have lost their means of employment will need help with things like making mortgage payments in the months ahead, he said. “We want to help them keep their home but we’ve got to have the resources.
“If we step up right now, this tragedy can become Forest Park’s finest hour.”
Like several churches, Forest Park has set up a fund for relief. Funds channeled through Swadley’s church may be sent to Forest Park Baptist Church, 725 Highview, Joplin, MO 64801 and designated as “tornado relief.”
(Sermon quotes in this story came from a copy of the message provided to Word&Way by Pastor John Swadley. The message also has been posted on the church’s website — fpbc.net.)