Unity a positive outcome of loss to deadly Joplin tornado - Word&Way

Unity a positive outcome of loss to deadly Joplin tornado

JOPLIN — "We're still working through all that trauma…. We're not 100 percent yet," Pastor Charlie Burnett said by phone May 23.

Pastor Charlie Burnett and wife Ann pause on the parking lot of Harmony Heights Baptist Church in Joplin a few days after a tornado struck during evening worship May 22, 2011, killing three women and demolishing the building. (Photo by Bill Webb)

But watching construction of a new facility and anticipating its completion by year's end have gone a long way in helping his church members recover from the EF-5 tornado that ripped through Joplin last May.

Members of his church — Harmony Heights Baptist — were worshipping Sunday evening May 22 when they heard the tornado warning sirens. Most of the 53 worshippers crouched in hallways as the tornado destroyed the building. Three women were killed.

The tornado cut a six-mile swath through the city's heart.

Bystanders arrived within minutes of the building's collapse and helped pull members from the rubble.

Like everyone who lost homes and businesses to the deadly storm, Harmony Heights members had to determine whether to rebuild.

On June 5, members worshipped at Friendship Baptist Church, and then began sharing Bethel Assembly of God's building, where they continue to meet each Sunday afternoon.

Then on June 6, a contractor started removing rubble from the church property, including the remains of the sanctuary, family life center, educational unit, a storage facility and four 15-passenger church vans.

The congregation had insurance on its property and received donations to assist, not only the church, but also members who had lost their homes.

An architect was hired, and actual construction on the new facility began six weeks ago, Burnett said. Slabs and piers are being pored, and steel is expected to arrive on June 14. The new structure will not resemble the old one, the pastor added.

The prospect of a new building isn't the only encouragement for the congregation. "Spiritually and psychologically we are doing well," Burnett said. A new cohesiveness also has resulted from the devastation. "I think the unity of our church is better overall," he added.

And the congregation continues to minister whenever members can. On May 22, the one-year anniversary, congregants joined others from Spring River Baptist Association to give away bottled water, snow cones and other treats at the city's Unity Walk to mark the storm's first anniversary.

Burnett believes the tragedy also has sparked a greater desire in church members to minister to others. "We may be more aggressive in evangelism," he said.

That desire has already sparked ministry. A recent member started a new women's Bible study on Mondays. Currently, the group meets at the association office, and believes it will grow once the new building is completed.

Some ministries will change. Harmony Heights is located across the street from where the high school, also completely destroyed by the tornado, once stood. A new high school is being constructed a block west of the old site.

Church members had been sponsoring a breakfast ministry to high schoolers. The move may hinder the ministry somewhat because students who are bused to school likely won't have time to walk to the church, eat and return before class begins, Burnett explained.

The city has asked the faith community to be involved in student lives, he added. "We may explore the possibility."

Burnett is quick to point out that others' concern has helped his church in its recovery process. "Many churches and people have prayed for us and helped," he said. "It's been staggering…. We're really grateful."