A week ago, a massive F5 tornado slashed a gash right into the community and hearts of the people of Joplin, MO. The devastation goes much deeper than flattened homes and spread debris across the town. One can look and see the six miles of destruction that is over a mile wide at some points, but to find the deeper hurts of the community and individuals, you must search into the heart and soul.
In their time of darkness, the people of Joplin came under attack, not by mother nature, but by the threat of individuals of the Westboro Baptist Church. The WBC had decided to picket the Memorial Service for the victims of the tornado, claiming that the tornado was sent by God because the town accepted gays and lesbians into their community. Their official statement was “Thank God for 125 dead in Joplin.”
In response to this, a Peace Rally was formed to block WBC from sight. A couple of hours before the Memorial Service, groups of motorcycles, pedestrians, and American flags began to line both sides of the street in front of the campus of Missouri Southern State University (MSSU) where the Volunteer Reception Center (VRC) is and where I have been working for the past week.
Fortunately, due to some technical difficulties (aka: getting blocked into a truck stop by a group of semi-trucks) the majority of the WBC did not arrive early enough to make any noise, both physically and in the media. One of the members who did show up, without the support of the rest of his group, got caught in the middle of a group of bikes who circled him and took away his sign, possibly burning it (though it has not been confirmed if the sign made it through the trauma).
(As a side note: A couple of minutes after this event, a small group of bikers left the area. From what I heard from other bikers, they were not asked to leave, they were forced to by their fellow bikers, not the police.)
Standing along the road, with their backs to where the WBC were supposed to be organized, was a line of men and women, each one holding a flag and creating a wall designed to block the WBC’s view of the MSSU campus where the Memorial Service was being held, as well as blocking the family members from seeing the WBC. Like watch-men standing at their post, one could look upon it and see the support from members of the community that we call the United States.
Yes, it was patriotic to see hundreds of flags lining the streets, but it was more satisfying to see the hundreds of people who came out in support of the city of Joplin. Between the bikers, the local volunteers (who took the day off from volunteering), and those who traveled from around the state and country to show their support, the atmosphere was one of hope and community, rather than one of violence and hostility.
Seeing the support pour out into Joplin, through the Peace Rally and through the 8000+ volunteers that have come to help do debris removal, search and rescue, data entry, phone banks and many more countless behind the scenes jobs, its been moving.
One of the volunteers told me that seeing all the support flow in has given him the hope to begin the healing process. It is in the support of others that Joplin itself will begin to heal.
During the Memorial Service, we heard many stories of sacrifice, hope and the courage to do what was once thought to be impossible. Ordinary people became heroes because they followed their heart. We will never know the courage that it takes, until we find ourselves facing our greatest fears and challenges. And in their darkest hour, Joplin received the support that was needed to make it a beacon of hope for those who are suffering.
God Bless and PEACE