When a disaster happens, our people jump into action.
What can a church do now that will help it respond faithfully if there’s a terrorist attack or some other disaster?
Bob Long, pastor of St. Luke’s United Methodist Church in Oklahoma City, has an answer based on what he experienced ten years ago this month.
It was 9:02 Wednesday morning, April 19, 1995. Dr. Long was in his office at St. Luke’s. Suddenly he heard a deafening boom and felt the building shake. He ran outside, looked to the south, and saw thick, black smoke billowing up about a mile away.
Long had no idea the smoke was coming from the deadliest terrorist attack that had ever happened on American soil. He did not know a two-ton bomb made of ammonium nitrate fertilizer and fuel oil had blown the front off of the nine-story Murrah Federal Building and heavily damaged more than 200 other buildings. He did not know 168 people were dead and hundreds were injured. But this much Long did know— people were in trouble and needed help the church alone could offer.
Within minutes, he and his staff were listening to news bulletins and thinking about problems people were facing and how St. Luke’s could help. Since the church was near the bomb site and had plenty of space, Long phoned the American Red Cross and offered use of the building. The Red Cross accepted, and moved in by noon.
Soon the Christian Life Center was filling up with residents of nearby apartment buildings and retirement centers that had shattered windows and cracked walls and were no longer safe to live in.
Since their former homes were now part of the crime scene, residents of nearby buildings were not permitted to go back inside even to get clothes and other belongings. Most came to St. Luke’s with only the clothes they were wearing. Many other people gathered at the church to watch TV reports and wait for news about family and friends they believed were trapped in the building
In addition, hundreds of volunteers came to help Red Cross care for the 300 temporary residents. They also helped prepare more than 2,000 meals a day for those living at the church and for rescue workers who were risking their lives searching for trapped survivors. Church members also brought blankets, pillows, clothing and other essentials.
The Red Cross maintained its operation at St. Luke’s for about two weeks.
When Long was asked how he accounted for St. Luke’s responding so faithfully, he replied that reaching out and caring for people was at the heart of the church’s culture.
“St. Luke’s is more than a century old,” he said, “and if you look back through our history you will find that our people have always believed we are called to be involved in the world and to care for one another. When a disaster happens, our people jump into action.”
When asked if he asked the trustees for permission before inviting the Red Cross to make St. Luke’s their disaster response center, Long said it never occurred to him.
“We had just built our new Christian Living Center and redecorated our fellowship hall,” he said. “Suddenly clothes were hanging from our chandeliers. People were eating everywhere, our carpets were getting trashed. About $5,000 worth of our kitchen equipment went out of our building and was lost in the chaos. But, I didn’t have one member come up to me and say, ‘Oh my gosh, Bob, look what’s happening to our facility.’ Nobody was complaining. Everybody was saying, ‘This is what we are here for.’ ”
St. Luke’s not only provided a place for people to eat and sleep. The staff and scores of members sat with people who were grieving and listened to them tell who and what they had lost and express doubts about how they could live through it.
“We didn’t offer easy answers or pretend to be fixers,” explains Long. “We just listened with loving hearts. I was fascinated by how much this meant to people. Later we got numerous letters from those who had been here. What they thanked us for most was not the food or the lodging or the clothes, but for our people who came and sat and listened. Many of them said, ‘It was so nice to have somebody listen to me. It helped me so much. I didn’t feel so alone.’ ”
Long says his experiences following the bombing made him more aware that the church can play a crucial role in helping people whose lives have been shattered by disaster become triumphant survivors.
“The most important thing a church can do in advance of a disaster is to plant the seed and nurture the growth of a caring community that understands that the call of the gospel is to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, listen to the lonely, and express compassion in every other way possible to everyone,” said Long.
How is a caring community created? Long admits it doesn’t happen over night.
“It takes years of faithful preaching, teaching and living. We must do all we can to help each other understand we are here for one another. That’s a drum we can’t stop beating!”
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