JOPLIN — As Christmas approaches, many Joplin residents still struggle with the aftermath of a devastating tornado that ripped through the city's heart on May 22. But Bob Barker, Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Missouri disaster relief coordinator for the area, sees God's hand in partnership and in physical and spiritual ministry.
"The upheaval is still as real for people as it was on May 22 because they still live with it," Barker said in a recent telephone interview.
Based in Republic, the retired pastor and hospital chaplain explained that the continued need for a listening ear among those still recovering remains strong.
A young woman had gone to Minnesota to visit her father before the tornado hit. Her dad died during her visit, and then she returned to Joplin and her husband to find her home had been torn up.
Later, a couple of teams from Mississippi and Texas helped hang sheetrock for the couple. "A lady from one of the teams spent hours just listening to the woman share her story and her needs," Barker explained. "Her husband had been working eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, and she felt she had to take care of everything."
One couple is still dealing with a contractor who took advantage of their situation. Barker and others are assisting them with financial and other needs. "We see a spiritual response with the family," he added.
The ongoing effort touches lives of volunteers, as well. A young widow from St. Louis felt herself becoming more and more depressed as she tried to deal with her husband's death. Finally, she decided she needed to focus on helping others and headed to Joplin, Barker related.
While helping clean the home of an older woman, an avid collector of antiques, the St. Louisan uncovered the homeowner's collection of antique marbles and returned them to her. "Now I can tell my friends that I haven't lost all my marbles," the older woman responded.
The widow laughed for the first time since her husband had died. "I came to Joplin empty and wondering if God still cared," she told Barker. Her experience showed her that the Lord did and always would, the chaplain said.
Barker added that he and other volunteers likely will do a lot of chaplaincy work throughout the holidays. "We talk about how God brings people into your life to help…. He provides assurance and affirmation so that when you look back, you can see the spiritual growth."
A significant factor in continued recovery in Joplin is the partnerships formed among the faith community and those that have crossed faith and government lines.
Barker serves on the Federal Emergency Management Agency-initiated long-term recovery committee, specifically through the volunteer/construction subcommittee, one of six subcommittees that address needs. Whenever disaster strikes, FEMA makes sure such a committee is established before its representatives leave the affected area.
"I've been impressed with all the committees," he said. "There is an underlying concern for people's emotional and spiritual needs…from both secular and faith sides…. There has been a very collaborative effort from the federal government to the city to all other groups involved."
Most of Joplin's faith groups are involved. "Everyone brings something to the table, and that has helped move things along," he said.
An immediate and long-term goal remains helping the uninsured and underinsured get back into their homes. The immediate goal is to rehabilitate homes so that people can use them, and then to help build a new house.
Barker has been instrumental in forming a covenant partnership with the Americus, Ga.-based Fuller Center for Housing. Established in 2005 by Millard and Linda Fuller, co-founders of Habitat for Humanity, the Fuller Center concentrates on "eliminating poverty housing," according to its website.
A local eight-member board with Barker as president and Randy Crane, a Presbyterian minister in Joplin, as vice president and partnership site coordinator, has been set up. While the organization awaits its non-profit status from the Missouri Secretary of State's office, it can coordinate volunteer teams.
Barker now operates in a dual role. He will continue to coordinate volunteer teams through Missouri and national CBF, arranging job sites and lodging for teams. He also will coordinate volunteers for the Fuller Center.
A primary need is for volunteers with construction skills to concentrate on rehabilitation. In addition to individual volunteers, "we can take teams with at least a couple of skilled people who can lead their team's work," he explained.
Financial and/or in-kind contributions are still needed, as well. A major need is prayer support for the "hurt, heartache, disillusionment and depression" many people are still experiencing, Barker emphasized.
Barker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.