It is now Tuesday evening, a little after 11:00 PM central time. It has been about 60 hours since the tornado struck our town. This is the first time I've had the opportunity to turn on a computer and write down my thoughts. Let me share a few of them with you and give some updates on what is happening in our church and community.
Ministry Changed and Unchanged
In one sense, this crisis has altered our ministry dramatically—perhaps for years to come.
When the tornado hit, we had just passed out bulletins describing our ministries for the upcoming week. Today, none of those events are on the schedule. There is only one event on the calendar: helping our neighbors.
When the tornado hit, we were wondering how to build a ministry facility. Today, we're wondering how to rebuild a community.
When the tornado hit, we were in church at Five Points. Today, we aren't sure where we will be worshiping on Sunday. We hope it is at Five Points, but we presume nothing.
In another very real sense, this crisis has altered nothing. Our fundamental purpose as a church remains what it has been since before we even held our first worship service: The purpose of our church is to glorify God as we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and prepare His people to worship Him forever.
Our purpose is beautifully simple: proclaim and prepare. Whether we are having AWANA on a Wednesday night or helping someone find a missing necklace in the rubble that was their home, we exist to proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and prepare His people to worship Him forever.
This means that we do not merely want to see people's physical lives restored (though we do!). We want those who do not yet worship God to understand the good news of Jesus Christ and place their faith in Him alone for their salvation. We want those who have trusted in Christ to continue the difficult road of discipleship even through suffering.
The Sunday before the tornado, I made this statement as we talked about suffering in the book of Judges: "Suffering is a tool a sovereign God uses to conform you to the image of His Son Jesus Christ. If you have not yet been fully conformed to His image, know that suffering in this life still awaits you."
Suffering, then, is not always a sign of God's displeasure. It is part of His loving plan to sanctify us as we trust in Him. "Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead" (2 Cor. 1:9).
Bethany Community Church and Washington Community: we are being called to be sanctified.
With this framework in mind, that our purpose is to proclaim and prepare, let me give you an update.
The Past 60 Hours
Here's my perspective of the last 60 hours. I apologize if it's too personal or too long. Some of this I'm writing so I don't forget.
SUNDAY: At around 10:45 AM, I made my way to the stage of the Five Points Community Center where our church meets. I waited in the wings as Mike and the worship team sang "The Gospel Was Promised." I prayed that the Lord would prepare my hear and the hearts of the church for His Word.
But something seemed off. Looking up, I noticed that Mike and the team were still singing but I couldn't hear them. A voice came from the speakers that I thought was coming from the Five Points staff (maybe some wires got crossed) but then I realized it was Dan Ebbert directing people to exit to their left (my left or the audience left?).
We exited the auditorium and throughout Five Points our Sunday School teachers were directing the kids and adults to places of safety. I was annoyed. We're going to do all this work and then come right back in. "Just so you know, I'm not cutting anything out of my sermon," I joked to someone as we walked to safety.
Even as we waited for the all clear, I had no idea how terrible the devastation was. I didn't hear the loud "boom" others did.
Even when we heard that the house of some of our members was destroyed and their son was missing for about an hour, I had no idea how terrible the devastation was.
Even when Five Points was set up as an emergency temporary shelter and shocked victims began to enter the building, I had no idea how terrible the devastation was.
Supplies and people came into the community center throughout the rest of the day. People in the church stuck around and helped provide food and care for those who were hurting.
Several pastors stopped by to help care for people. My phone was constantly buzzing with offers of help. Friends from our sister churches and close pastoral friends desperately wanted to help or at least know how we were doing.
But I still didn't understand how profound the damage was. I knew people were having a hard time getting around Washington, but that was to be expected during an emergency, right?
And then I went out with Pastor Dave Jane from Connect Church to take workers some food. And we saw this:
It's hard to grasp the enormity of the scene if you don't know what this is supposed to look like. Here's a hint: there should be way more homes in that picture.
I run several times a week along Kingsbury. I like hitting this part of the route when it's windy because the homes act as a windbreaker. This is what I saw Sunday along Kingsbury hours after the tornado hit:
Even when I was on streets where the homes weren't totally damaged, I couldn't grasp where I was. Nothing looked the same.
We returned to a house without power. The milk was still cold, so we ate some cereal by candlelight. The whole family slept in our bedroom that night, encircling our beds with sleeping bags. I lost count of how many hugs and kisses were given.
MONDAY: The next day, Monday, the staff had planned to meet at the farmhouse but some weren't allowed to leave their subdivisions. A few of us made it to Crossroads Church, which is functioning as an emergency shelter. We ran into several families from church and tried to see what sort of needs we could help meet.
One of the primary problems was our inability to get into the neighborhoods. Even residents were only allowed in intermittently. The best bet seemed to be travelling by bike. So I hopped on my bike and began visiting families who had been impacted by the storm.
One of my first stops was at the Dentino house down the street. Several families had gathered together and were helping each other out. Like any good pastor, I arrived right as food was being served.
Another stop was at the Allaman's house. It's a privilege to know the Allamans and I couldn't be more complimentary of the leadership Chad and the other teachers and administrators at Central School have shown. Both he and Laura are responding to a tremendous loss with gracious and thankful hearts.
Pastor Kent was hard at work on Sally's house. I tried to help, but I put a ladder where he didn't want it and I may have unknowingly knocked over some nails while trying to "help".
I'm not sure how many other homes I visited, but everywhere I went, the community was coming together to meet needs. Because others weren't allowed in to Washington, our church had unique opportunities to help those we love.
We ended the night where I had begun my afternoon: at the Dentino's. The Pacini's picked up some sandwiches and we ate dinner together. Even though we could have scrounged around for food at our house, there was something special about being with our church family.
TUESDAY: Today is when our church really got organized. Ben, Phil, Diane, and Seth ran a command center. They put together 15-20(?) teams of 5-7 people and sent them out into the neighborhoods.
Sunrise Roofing helped us put a tarp on the Tomlinson's house.
I saw groups from other churches helping out. Here's a group at the Learned house. Dan and Carol and their family have amazing ministers to others, exemplifying 2 Corinthians 1:4, in which Paul praises the God "who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God."
Many of the houses we worked at weren't associated with our church. This is a house we stopped at and just asked the homeowners if we could help clear some debris for them. There were several connections they had to Bethany families.
Team 6 helped an older couple find some of their belongings in the rubble. After they finished here, they helped move some belongings out of an apartment building.
This team helped a family who have no friends or family in the area. They are from another country and were more excited than any other family I encountered today to receive help. They felt so very alone and were thankful that someone stopped to ask how they could help.
The Becks are doing well and grateful for God's protection over their family.
As are the Smith's!
There were lots more pictures and many families and teams working I didn't get to see today. Great job everyone who participated in helping today. There's lots more to be done, not just this week but in the coming weeks, months, and years. This is a marathon and may God give us the grace to endure.
Our ministry field has changed dramatically overnight. Our purpose remains the same: proclaiming Jesus Christ as Lord and preparing His people to worship Him forever.