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Town weathers triple disasters

What's next for the town of Canton, Missouri?

BY HEATHER MOYER | CANTON, Missouri | January 25, 2005

"People wonder 'Where is God in all this?'"

—Rev. Christine Walsh

What's next for the town of Canton, Missouri?

"At this point I'm waiting to see a plague of locusts," laughed the Rev. Stacey Nicholas of Canton's Immanuel United Methodist Church.

Nicholas and the rest of the residents of Canton are accustomed to disasters.

A huge flood hit the small eastern Missouri town in 1993. A tornado destroyed 75 homes in the area only two years ago. And then last week, a major fire destroyed several buildings in the community's small downtown section.

Yet despite the destruction and seeming bad luck, Canton residents are a determined and optimistic people.

"This is a close-knit town" said Nicholas. "One of the great things about (Canton) is that whenever bad things happen, everyone immediately gets together and says 'Okay, how are we going to put things back together?'"

The cause of last week's fire was an unattended stove, and the blaze quickly spread to two other nearby buildings. Not only were several businesses affected, but several families living in one of the buildings are also now homeless. Nicholas said that's where the community's disaster experience came in handy.

After the tornado in May 2003, many of the county's churches, social service agencies, and government offices united to form a long-term recovery committee with the help of the Missouri Interfaith Disaster Response Organization (MIDRO) and the Community Organizations Active in Disaster (COAD) model. That committee, called Samaritan Well (SW), met the needs of the families affected by that tornado, and then remained in existence to continue to meet any further needs brought about by disasters in Canton and Lewis County.

"(SW) serves as a sort of one-stop-shopping for affected families, so they don't have to go door-to-door-to-door for help," said Nicholas, whose church is an SW member.

So many disasters can also force a community to examine its beliefs, though. Nicholas gave a sermon this past week that discussed compassion fatigue. "I told (the congregation) that it's okay to feel compassion fatigued because it means that we care."

Her sermon also referenced a scene from the musical "Jesus Christ Superstar." In it, there is a scene where everyone is surrounding Jesus and asking for his help. "The crowds are building up around him and he finally yells at them in frustration," added Nicholas. "When we're that tired and feel like screaming, it's time for us to turn to prayer and to God - just like Jesus did at that time."

The Rev. Christine Walsh, pastor of Canton Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), agreed. "All the world's disasters get to people, too," said Walsh, who is also the chair of SW. "People will wonder 'Where is God in all this?' And there are many opportunities to talk about God and faith when these things happen."

The night of the huge downtown fire, both Walsh and Nicholas went to the site to offer their assistance. Both spoke with the crowd of shocked residents gathering to watch the blaze.

"I wanted to be able to reassure folks down there, it helps to just be a listening ear sometimes," said Walsh.

They also were in touch with the affected families to make sure they had a place to stay along with any other needs. Walsh explained to the families how SW could help.

A week later, the rubble of the buildings in downtown Canton is still smoldering. None of the residents had renter's insurance. Only one of the businesses affected had insurance. The others had been attempting to obtain insurance by making the required upgrades to the historic buildings first. The fire stopped one building owner's dreams of starting a business in one of the vacant storefronts. "Their devastation was so deep," explained Walsh.

Yet through it all, the town sticks together. "Everyone knows everyone here," said Nicholas. "When your neighbor is hurt, you're hurt."

SW is an example of that community-wide and county-wide bond to help each other. "It's so great to have it," Walsh noted. "The big benefit is the way it helps us coordinate and pool resources. Everyone sits down together to offer advice, answer questions, and distribute the workload."

The name of the committee is inspired by the story of Jesus and the woman at the well, and Nicholas said that name choice is meant to inspire the community. "We want to give people that same hope that Jesus gave to the woman."

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