It is about 4 p.m. on Monday, May 23. Updates have been trickling in all day after a tornado clawed through the south side of Joplin less than 24 hours earlier, leaving a death toll of at least 116 in its wake. In a town of 50,000, the most recent estimates suggest 2,000 homes and businesses were damaged, many reduced to rubble.
The morning-after photos show dazed residents walking through former neighborhoods and past former places of business, vehicles strewn like piles of toys around them. In some of those shots, the terrain has been skinned as far as the eye can see. Indeed, the tornado winds hugged the landscape for six miles.
By all appearances, Joplin is a war zone. The tornado slammed the multi-story St. John's Regional Medical Center and flattened the local high school. Fortunately, graduation ceremonies were held the day before the violent tornado attack. Churches related to various denominations were not spared either. Across the street from the high school, three people perished as Harmony Heights Baptist Church was destroyed. Another Baptist church, Empire, suffered severe damage as well.
Joplin sits along I-44 in the far southwest corner of Missouri, within 10 miles of the Oklahoma border and about 50 miles north of Arkansas. A section of the interstate was closed to traffic as scores of emergency vehicles screamed into the city and then sped away, carrying the injured to hospitals in Neosho, Lamar, Nevada, Carthage, Monett and Springfield, all in Missouri, as well as Tulsa and Miami, Okla., and Pittsburg, Kan.
Triage centers were set up around the city in places such as the campus of Missouri Southern State University, a downtown entertainment venue and stores like Home Depot. Victims were delivered to some of them in the back of pickup trucks manned by medical personnel. The American Medical Association issued a plea for medical personnel from other cities to sign up to help.
At least two fire stations were damaged by the tornado; basic services were halted; natural gas fires burned overnight; and search and rescue workers systemically worked their way across town.
First responders provided rescue services and emergency medical care even as disaster relief specialists representing Missouri Baptists and Southern Baptists began mobilizing and planning for services such as food preparation, child care, chainsaw work and counseling.
The Cooperative Baptist Fellowship also had a representative in Joplin anticipating how that organization will be able to augment the efforts of others.
Baptist disaster relief units in adjacent states are on standby, awaiting the call for mobilization — standard procedure for the "yellow jackets."
It is numbing to read updates on the Joplin situation and to glance through the accumulations of news photos. But those trained to respond to such massive disasters aren't sitting still.
Because the process of helping restore normalcy to the estimated quarter of the city directly affected by the tornado will require helping families one person at a time and restoring homes, schools, churches and businesses in the same fashion, efforts to help will require meticulous planning, strategic use of resources, long-term commitments and energetic execution.
To be sure, government will be called upon to render assistance in this situation, but as is always the case, volunteers will give selflessly to administer the human touch. Churches will respond, not only to other congregations whose facilities have been damaged but to the community at large. Members will do whatever is required to meet human needs and to provide moral and spiritual support.
Baptists from outside affected communities have become recognized experts in situations like these, in part because they are generous and well resourced and volunteers have discovered the significance of responding to human needs in situations like the tragedy in Joplin.
And it is not just Southern Baptist state units but regional associations; CBF Baptists and — in Missouri — Baptist-General-Convention-of-Missouri Baptists. Frankly, in disaster situations, there is a place for all of us. And there is always a need for all of us.
It seems to me that Baptists have an opportunity to do something we haven't always done, and that is to work in a complementary and cooperative way to minister in Joplin. Baptist differences do not amount to a hill of beans where people are grieving the loss of loved ones, loss of livelihood and loss of homes.
People in communities across our state have noticed that we do not always play well together. That is a reputation we improve only when we determine to put aside competitive and critical attitudes toward each other and demonstrate the unity we have in serving God and in serving other people.
Bill Webb is editor of Word&Way.