Support and Hope

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


Scattered Stories

On the 22 May 2011, a F5 tornado hit the city of Joplin, MO.  Within the hour, the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT) had left the tornado clean-up in their own home town and begun their journey across the state.  The following morning, Sun 6 and Earth 2, two AmeriCorps NCCC teams based out of Denver, followed in their wake (alongside the remaining ERT members responding to the tornado). 

As we arrived, almost 24 hours after the tornado hit, we were met by weary and exhausted volunteers who had yet to sleep after the initial response.  Many were flowing just on adrenalin after working for over 24 hours streight, some had not seen sleep in over 48 hours. 

And like that, we started to get organized.  AmeriCorps main job is running the Volunteer Resource Center (VRC), managing volunteers and entering data into the system.  We have been maning the phone-lines, working in the field, answering questions, and showing people where to go. 

And the volunteers started to pour in.  At this point, over 4000 intake forms have been processed (with over 1000 remaining), hundreds of missing person reports have been filed, and thousands of volunteers have helped out in the field, the warehouse (relieving donations), answering phones, and entering data into the system.  Hundreds of people have poured out from the community to serve, and with them comes the stories of heroes and bravery, fright and confusion. 

Last night, I received the opportunity to pull my first all-nighter.  All throughout highschool and college, I found ways to sleep through the night, but it took a disaster for me to accomplish this feat.  I actually volunteered for it, so I can’t complain. 

Anyways, I was helping out with the data entry with a crazy group of individuals.  Each of them has their own stories, but I wanted to share a couple with the rest of the world. 

Two of the girls have a wonderful story.  They were convicted by the Holy Spirit to help out.  Well, they were watching a clip from Shane Claiborne where he was talking about how, as Christians, we should not run away from disaster, but run towards it to help out, when they found out about the tornado.  So, after some prayer and loading of supplies, they headed out. 

Well, they got talking about the homeless and how they could help when they came around a corner and came face to face with two young men.  Well, lo and behold, all four of them arrived at the VRC eager to work throughout the night and the next couple days. 

Another man who was working with me today is a certified paramedic whom was biking from the West Coast to the East Coast (Manhattan to San Francisco I believe?) and his journey brought him through Joplin, about 30 minutes after the tornado hit.  He told me that after all the people who have helped him through his journey (both life and the bike ride) it would be criminal for him just to keep going.  He has been here for the past couple days, constantly working. 

Another young man was working with us last night who shared with us that his house was completely destroyed, except for the four walls and the ceiling of the bathroom that he dived into when the tornado hit.  He is moving back in with his parents, but felt the need to volunteer (along with several friends) even though he was also a ‘victim’. 

It’s amazing to hear all the stories of these people who survived, that came here, that are volunteering their time.  So many times we just hear of numbers.  120+ dead.  17 survivors pulled from the wreckage.  1 mile wide path of destruction, 2 miles long.  4000+ volunteers.  We are not able to put a face to the story. 

We can’t see the young woman who was pulled from what remains of her house.  Nor do we see the face of the 5 month old, pulled from beneath a crushed truck to be reunited with his mother and father.  We don’t see it, because we are bombarded by numbers. 

There are thousands of stories of survivors.  Or victims.  And the difference between the two, between survivor and victim, begin to blur. 

I’ll leave you with one final story, from a man who worked in the data entry center for over 12 hours today:

He was visiting a family friend on the 5th floor of St. John’s Hospital when the tornado hit.  The F5 slammed into the hospital, stopping in its tracks for a brief moment, before surging through the building and racing across the town.  He emerged from the building out of a hole in the wall, only to turn back around and go back into the building, time and time again until he could no longer find people to pull out. 

Despite a ruptured natural gas line, structural damage and his own fears, he could not turn away from the sound of people screaming.  Doctors and nurses have called him a hero, but he just hopes that someone would do the same for him. 

It’s been several nights since, and he has yet to get to sleep, because once he starts to rest, all he can hear is the sound of the tornado, the glass breaking, and the people screaming.  He can still see the bodies of the dead, something that has changed him forever. 

You can hear the shaking in his voice when he talks freely about it.  How he broke down and cried when the nurses and staff came and thanked him.  You can see the fear because he knows what waits in his sleep. 

These are the stories that change us, that create us to whom we have become.  Nobody can live through something like this and claim to be the same person they were before.  So, when you pray for those affected by the storms, by the tornadoes that have swept across this nation, don’t think about the numbers, but each individual.  Each story.

God Bless and PEACE

Looking Back at the End of the World

So, according to a small group of individuals, the rapture was supposed to happen yesterday (21 May).  Earthquakes were supposed to open up the ground and swallow thousands, as the rapture takes all the faithful up to heaven.  As we all realize, nothing happened.  There were no earth shattering tremors.  No disappearance of the faithful.  Nothing.

Me, I had a pretty ordinary day.  Went to work alongside the AmeriCorps St. Louis Emergency Response Team (ERT), moved large chunks of trees, came home, took a shower and ate before falling back into slumber. 

I slept in the comfort of knowing that God was probably looking down at all of us, laughing.  Do we really expect to guess when the master will return? 

But about the day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.
 – Matthew 24:36

In trying to predict when God will return, when judgement will be passed onto the world, we are trying to prove that we understand what we will never be able to understand.  We think we can put a mathematical equation to the infinite, to prove faith through science, but we are constantly proved wrong. 

How many times have people tried to predict the end of the world?  Hundreds, if not thousands, or times people have said “This day” and it has passed and we are still going on.  Even us Christians try to prove that we know as much as God, and every single time, we are proved wrong. 

Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come.  But understand this:  If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into.  So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him.
 – Matthew 24:42-44

God Bless and PEACE

Frustrations from the Front Lines

Today, a few of us ventured out to Bridgeton, a community that was hit hard by the Good Friday Tornado.  It is a wealthier neighborhood than what we have been used to working in and it has not received any assistance through AmeriCorps or All Hands and the United Way yet. 

Although it received a direct hit in the path of the storm, our focus has been poorer neighborhoods to the East where many of the homeowners are unable to pay for the services of removing debris and repairs.  Many of the houses we saw have sustained major damage, but most of them have already had private contractors and the initial flood of volunteers work in and around their homes. 

Our job today was to go around and completing damage assessments and getting waivers signed by homeowners.  While most of the locals were nice and cooperative, we were met with some hostility from several residents. 

While I do understand the need for us to get waivers signed and do all the paper work, I also understand the anger and frustration when we show up, almost a month after the storm came through, with pens and paper, selling a promise. 

We’ve seen hints of hostility throughout the past couple weeks, but nothing compared to the words we received today.   We approached a homeowner who was clearing debris from her yard, introduced ourselves as members of AmeriCorps working with the United Way, and she immediately went off on us. 

“Why do you come with pens and paper?”  (note:  this is not word-for-word, just a summary)  “We’ve had enough people come pushing pens and selling promises, if you want to help, pick up something and work.” 

She was angry.  And I don’t blame her. 

Just a couple blocks down the road, as we approached another home owner, he told us (a little more politely) that he was not taking anything that anybody had to offer, he didn’t want or need anybodys help. 

It didn’t help that there were also several comments and replies to hostile home owners throughout the day that also got under my skin. 

When we immediately become defensive when confronted with hostility, we don’t help the situation, but make everything even more tense.  When we make comments about how it makes us feel worse when we see nicer homes destroyed or damaged because we don’t feel as bad when the homes are already in poor shape, we are not approaching the situation with the right mindset to begin with. 

Yes, there is resentment because we did not respond immediately to the aid of one community because we were helping another that had a more urgent need.  Yes, there have been too many people who have taken advantage of the disaster for profit, hitting entire communities with scam after scam.  Yes, there are people willing to voice their opinions of us volunteers, both to our faces and behind our backs. 

But it’s how we respond that makes us different.  And that is what we need to focus on, reactions and response. 

God Bless and PEACE

Relearning the Meaning of Service

Two and a half weeks ago, Sun 6 and Earth 2 (two teams from AmeriCorps NCCC based out of Denver, CO) arrived at the Ablaze Lutheran Center in St. Louis, MO in response to the Good Friday Tornado that ripped across the northern neighborhoods of the city.  You can still see the ragged path of the tornado, through the fallen trees, uprooted stumps, snapped limbs and blue tarps that blanket one neighborhood, yet only dot the next.

While most of the nations focus was on the St. Louis Airport, which received a direct hit from the tornado and still has visible damage and boarded up windows, and some of the richer, more well-known neighborhoods to the West that received an immediate flood of volunteers and funding, many neighborhoods and communities have been untouched since the winds ripped though. 

There are houses that still have trees on and through their roofs.  Trees still litter the yards.  And for many people in these neighborhoods, the only physical help they have received has been the presence of private contractors quoting exaggerated prices and empty promises. 

These people don’t have money to pay for the extensive damage caused by the storm.  Their struggle to stay afloat has now become a daily struggle to survive.  Some are not capable of doing it themselves, due to old age, injuries, illness and the shear size and amount of damage. 

And that is where we come in.  Us in our gray and khaki uniforms, black belts and steel toed boots. 

Though it feels like it from time to time, we are not the saviors of this city.  We are just a bunch of kids who have gotten the opportunity to do something amazing.  We were in the right place at the right time and now we get to do hard work for long hours, six days a week. 

We work beside amazing individuals and teams from around the country.  We complain about doing the grunt work, but all of us know that we actually find some sick satisfaction of being too exhausted at the end of the day to take a shower. 

We struggled for the first couple days, the two teams from AmeriCorps NCCC, the “N-Trips.”  We came together thinking that we would eventually be going back to our actual teams, but then we found out that our shuffle round teams are now the team that we will be with for the rest of the year. 

Yes, we were angry.  Upset.  Confused.  We didn’t really know what to think.  But as the days passed, we began to come together, not just as individual teams, but as one big family. 

We go out and put everything on the line, each and every day.  And we love it. 

We have stories and experiences to share, that nobody else has.  We have seen things that have brought us to the verge of tears, to the breaking point, and we have become stronger.  We have grown to become someone many of our younger selves would never recognize (both physically and mentally). 

And though it may sound like we are having fun (which we are), we are also getting a lot accomplished.  Through the guidance of AmeriCorps St. Louis and All Hands, we have begun the healing process for this city. 

And though there is still lots of work to do, we are young and eager to face the situation head on. 

And for all of you wondering about the AmeriCorps NCCC’s response to the disaster in Alabama and the surrounding states, and the flooding of the Mississippi River, know that there are already teams on the ground, and more willing to come at a moments notice. 

God Bless and PEACE

Fallen Giants

Two days ago, one of the AmeriCorps St. Louis guys with the Emergency Response Team (ERT) was called out to start work on a massive tree that fad fallen across two adjoining yards.  He, along with two of us from the National Civilian Community Corps (NCCC) joined him as he began falling limbs the size of large trees off the base of the trunk. 

The tree has to be a couple hundred years old and its base is close to 5 feet in diameter.  Below are some photos from today, as we returned with a larger group made up of members from the AmeriCorps St. Louis ERT, AmeriCorps NCCC and UM Corps (the United Methodist Missions and Disaster Response Team). 

As we were working, clearing out the branches, cut limbs and rounds, I couldn’t help but wonder what it would have been like to see this giant tree before it toppled in the storm.  It must have been beautiful.  Limbs stretched out.  Standing strong and tall.  It must have been the dream for any kid wanting a tree house or fort (no, there is not one smashed to pieces on the ground).

 There have been many giants that have fallen.  We have seen hundreds of trees that have come down from the storm, ripped out by the roots or snapped by the sheer force of the tornado.  Nations have fallen (look at Rome for example).  Armies have been utterly destroyed.  A young shepherd boy takes out a giant and leads the Israelites to victory. 

 We rise and fall.  That is the nature of humanity.  All throughout the ‘Old Testament’ and the story of the Jewish people we see our forefathers constantly stumbling and then rising back to take their place as God’s chosen people.  We see it in our own lives, constantly falling from grace only to be received with open arms full of love. 

 Sometimes getting back up hurts more than the fall.  We are humiliated, often times in front of family and friends and we struggle to get back to our feet.  Many times we just want to stay on the ground and we feel like we are about to die.  Then there are the times when we can’t get up on our own and we have to rely on the strength of others to lift us back onto our feet. 

Though we are not a tree that has fallen, now smashed to pieces, it may take some time to clean everything up.  Many hours of hard work and we may only find ourselves part of the way there.  We may never be the same person we once were, because it’s in the moments of getting back up that we grow. 

And as this city, St. Louis, begins to get itself back up on its feet, it will grow stronger through communities coming together, neighbors working alongside one another, experiences shared. 

God Bless and PEACE

Unconditional Love

Today we celebrate mothers across the nation and across the world.  We celebrate their love and their passion to watch us grow.  No matter what, they have a love for us that beaches all understanding. 

There have been times that the love of mothers have surprised me.  I’ve seen kids treat their mothers horribly.  I’ve seen them spit on them.  Kick ’em.  I’ve seen them ignored.  And worse. 

There are times that we treat them like they don’t matter, but yet at the end of the day, there is a love that they still have for us.  They have an unconditional love for us deep within their hearts that can never be broken. 

I know that my own mother would love it if I called every night.  Or if I had decided to go to school closer to home.  Or if I did something that didn’t involve me constantly on the move.  If I didn’t want to be a Wildland Firefighter (one of the most dangerous jobs). 

But despite all of that I’ve done, what we’ve done, our mothers will always love us.  It’s the unconditional love that they have for us. 

So, for all the mothers out there, Happy Mothers Day from all the sons and daughters.  We may never know how much you have done for us, but we are glad for all the moments, all the love, and all the prayers. 

God Bless and PEACE