AT 5:38 P.M. ON MAY 22, 2011, sirens screamed through downtown Joplin, Mo., just minutes ahead of the country’s deadliest tornado in 50 years. Father J. Friedel ushered his new Indian assistant, Father Shoby Mathew Chettiyath, to the rectory basement and tried to explain what a tornado was.
When the winds calmed, Father Friedel crossed over to the beautiful, old white-stone church of St. Peter the Apostle. “The tornado touched down on Rangeline,” he told the handful of parishioners, urging them to check on any family or friends in that part of town. Then he said a quick, fervent Mass.
He didn’t know the extent of the damage until he emerged from the church and heard someone say the hospital was gone.
“What do you mean the hospital’s gone?” Father Friedel asked, unable to imagine the seven floors of St. John’s Regional Medical Center collapsing — let alone Joplin High School, Walmart and thousands of houses and businesses. The tornado had sheared away a wide swath of Joplin, just 12 blocks to the south of St. Peter’s.
Father Friedel worked all night, unlocking the Catholic high school so it could be used as a triage station, wheeling the injured in office chairs, organizing supplies and checking on parishioners and his colleague at Joplin’s other Catholic church, St. Mary’s.
Father Justin Monaghan, 70, had taken shelter in a bathtub in the rectory, and St. Mary’s Catholic Church had fallen to pieces around him. By the time the winds stopped, only the church’s large cross — and its pastor — remained intact.
In the days after the tornado, one of Father Friedel’s jobs was to help people endure unimaginable losses without losing faith — or blaming a malevolent God. Some survivors were having trouble even recovering their loved ones’ bodies; there were rumors of trailers full of unidentified body parts. Others were grieving the senseless loss of young children, spouses or parents. God had to be found, not in nature’s random cruelty, but in the love and generosity of spirit it could not destroy.
And more practically, survivors had to find shelter, food and clothing. “Our Catholic Charities efforts were just beginning to expand; we had only one full-time person, and he was down in Cape Girardeau dealing with flooding,” Father Friedel recalls. “So Kansas City and St. Joe and St. Louis sent people, and Catholic Charities USA came in. Soon we had people here from Brownsville, New Orleans, Biloxi — all those other disaster areas — helping us figure out what to do.”
Before the tornado, Father Friedel had received a scholarship from the Catholic Church Extension Society to attend a campus ministry program. He almost cancelled it. Then he thought, No, we need to do this. All these campus ministry groups will come in and want to help. Father Friedel had plenty of experience: He’d spent 13 years as director of campus ministry at Southeast Missouri State University and had chaired the executive board for the national Catholic Campus Ministry Association. He decided they would create a program inviting students to come to Joplin and help with the physical work of rebuilding — and to enter into that work spiritually as well.
Maryann Mitts, a St. Peter parishioner at Missouri Southern State University and a faculty adviser for campus ministry, agreed to help organize the program. Groups started coming in the fall of 2011, and Mitts and her fellow coordinators made sure nobody’s time was wasted: Every volunteer team knew exactly what it was doing and where, had the tools and supplies it needed and had time for reflection afterward.
“We’ve had groups dig out foundations, move shrubs, do Sheetrock and drywall, paint,” she says with satisfaction. The students worked alongside community volunteers from Joplin, heard them talk about surviving the tornado, met kids who’d lost their parents and drank Cokes in the backyard of a 90-year-old husband-and-wife’s crumbled house where they’d lived since they married.
“That’s when you see God — it’s in the people,” Mitts says. “And that’s the only way you can make sense of this disaster: Go out and build relationships.”
For the evenings, Sister Diane Langford, CDP, director of adult faith formation at St. Peter, put together a guided reflection she called “Immersed in the Paschal Mystery,” so the students could think and talk and pray about what they were observing.
“You have the suffering and the death — physical, emotional, spiritual — and now we are starting to see the resurrection,” Mitts explains. “People’s lives have been changed, and you are seeing that they are changed for the better. Six months ago, there was no way you could see how things could be better after something like this.”
Answering the Call
When the call went out for volunteers, Bill Kriege, assistant director of campus ministry at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., put out the usual flyer and Facebook announcement. Normally, about 85 percent of the students who volunteer for a service project sign up on the last possible day, after they let their schedules settle and check with friends, weighing their options. Yet this trip — which wasn’t the least bit exotic or glamorous — filled within five days.
“A month out,” Kriege says, still dazed. “I’ve never had that kind of experience in 13 years of doing this work.” After an entire athletic team signed up, he arranged for a second bus. Then a new student from Belize, Hero Balani, came to his office, asking how to get involved. “As soon as I got to this country, I knew I wanted to help those people,” he says.
The trip itself felt different, too, according to Kriege, who has been on plenty of service trips, living and working with impoverished people in Belize, El Salvador and Mexico. “I walk out of those places into a faith desert, wondering what I’m called to do, where God’s hand is in all this,” he says.
“In Joplin, the whole experience renewed my faith. The human infrastructure in Joplin is incredible. When people are struggling just to feed their families, they don’t have the time and wherewithal to have that kind of organization. In Joplin, it was a well-oiled machine. There was a strong sense of community and solid volunteer support and networks to put things into place. And with those resources comes hope.”
Kate Reiter, a Rockhurst senior majoring in international business, worked alongside four Joplin residents who, despite their own losses and struggles, were spending their weekends helping others rebuild. They were working on a new house for a large family whose home had been leveled. Reiter dug a trench around the concrete so more concrete could be poured to make the foundation sturdier.
“I got to meet the dad and some of the kids,” she says. “I remember standing in a hole — I’d been digging all day and sweat was pouring off me, yet I had goosebumps over my whole body because of the stories one of the men from Joplin was telling us. It just makes you know there’s something bigger. He said they didn’t know whether to go to the closet or the bathroom, and it was like they saw an arrow pointing to the bathroom. And that was the only room left standing.”
Reiter had been nervous when she signed up for the trip: “I had never experienced anything like that. And you don’t really know where people are at mentally. I was worried that they’d be very distraught and saying, ‘Why is this happening?’ It was just the opposite. When I started talking to them, I realized their faith is much stronger now.
“I’m a big believer in learning from experiences,” she adds. “You can’t change it, so you just have to get something out of it, and that’s exactly what they did.”
For Balani, he had never seen people come together as a community in such a powerful way. “In Belize, to be honest, it’s more every man for himself. Whenever destruction happens, no one is willing to come out of their homes. Everyone pretty much goes in their shell like a hermit crab; they are afraid to go out there and make a difference. So instead of going to the community for help, the government has to seek aid from other countries. I think it makes a big difference when you do something for yourself.”
Great Loss, Great Love
By the tornado’s one-year anniversary this month, about 50 campus ministry teams will have helped Joplin rebuild. Mark Levand, a campus ministry intern at Washington University in St. Louis, brought eight students in mid-October 2011; they helped rebuild a house, dug up drainpipes at another site and did roof work at a third.
Standing on that roof and looking out at nothing but rubble, where family homes once stood, felt eerie and terrifying. “For a lot of the students, this was their first experience of construction service and disaster relief,” says Levand, a longtime Habitat for Humanity volunteer. “They were awestruck and relieved when they heard the stories of how people came to help.”
Levand made sure his students didn’t fall into the service trap, privately congratulating themselves on how good they were to give up their time and turning indignant if their work was not glorified. “The point is to do this kind of service humbly,” he says. “Yes, you do have to clean the toilet with your bare hands, and it might be crappy. Do your job. And know that you would want someone else to do this, if it were your house.”
One of Levand’s students “had a relatively fundamental understanding of God and how God has worked in her life, and it was very hard for her to see, before we had a little reflection about it, how this could have happened to such good people.” A lot of people subconsciously think that innocent people shouldn’t suffer, he adds, “and that was a very difficult thing for her to deal with.
“The opportunity’s there in which God can be inserted by our doing,” Levand told his students. “And that’s when we feel most just about the situation, when we feel drawn to act in love.”
Since the call for help went out, Catholic and other students have come from public and private colleges and universities all over the country — and they leave changed, and even hopeful, by what they witness.
Right after the tornado, “everybody was wondering where were the miracles,” Father Friedel recalls. “I think there have been plenty of miracles.”
A Scene Replayed
THE TORNADOES OF THIS PAST SPRING ARE THE LATEST in a series of devastating storms that have hit communities in the Midwest and Southeast in recent years. The Joplin tornado of 2011 was the deadliest tornado in the nation since 1947, with a death toll of 161 people. It was rated EF5, with winds reaching over 200 miles per hour.
Almost one year later, a similar scene played. On the late Friday afternoon of March 2, 2012, as many churches prepared for their parish Lenten fish fry, nine separate tornadoes swept through southeastern Indiana, northern Kentucky and southwestern Ohio. Three were of EF3 strength, with winds between 136 and 165 miles per hour. Kentucky was one of the hardest-hit states as tornadoes
touched down in 19 counties. Three additional tornadoes touched down the next day, leaving 11 states with substantial damage. At least 38 people were killed in Indiana, Kentucky, Ohio, Alabama and Tennessee. An earlier string of tornados in late February killed 13 people in Illinois, Missouri and Tennessee.
As in Joplin, volunteers and cleanup crews quickly gathered in the storms’ wakes to begin the long process of rebuilding.
The Toughest Ministry
ON THE SUNDAY THE TORNADO STRUCK, Edie Howard, a nurse at Freeman Memorial Hospital and a parishioner of St. Peter the Apostle Church, was on her work break; she met her husband, Rusty, and children, 5-year-old Harli and 18-month-old Hayze, for dinner.
When Edie drove back to Freeman, she felt her car rocking and skidding in the wind. She called Rusty and urged him to go someplace safe. He pulled into the nearest parking lot, gathered their two young children and ran toward Home Depot. Just as a guard rushed up to open the door for them, the front wall collapsed, killing all four of them.
Father Friedel told Edie gently, “If you try to make sense out of this, you’ll go crazy. We can’t make sense out of this. All we can do is hurt and hang on to each other and love each other.”
Father Friedel is trying not to hover, but he keeps a close eye on his bereaved parishioner. “She’s basically saying, ‘I just realize I’ve got to keep going. It’s what they want me to do. And I know we’ll be reunited someday,’” he reports. “She’s not sugarcoating it, though. At one point I did say to her, ‘If you ask me where God was when this happened, I’m going to tell you he was right there at Home Depot with them.’ Because I don’t believe God abandons us in those moments. But there’s no way to be human without experiencing loss and suffering and pain.”
He looks into the distance. “Harli lit up the church. When Hayze was baptized, she was 3, and she had it in her head that I was Jesus. I’d walk down the aisle and she’d say, ‘Hi, Jesus!’ I kept saying, ‘Honey, I’m not Jesus. I just work for him.’ We thought we had that in her head — and then I went over to her house after the Baptism, and she opened the door and announced, ‘It’s Jesus!’”
He pauses. “And she knows him real well, now.”