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Twisters wrench spirits, homes

Amid the tornado debris, pastors are worried about emotional fallout as Holy Week begins.

BY SUSAN KIM | ROSENDALE, MO | April 10, 2006

"The same night, this young boy not only lost his grandmother, but his home, too."

—Stephen Redman

Amid the tornado debris, pastors are worried about emotional fallout as Holy Week begins.

"We can rebuild sticks and cement and mortar," observed Rich Atkins, associate pastor at the Rosendale Christian Church in rural northwest Missouri. "What we can't always rebuild is the structure of a person's life. Right now my biggest concern is that. It's not as visible. But we have to look at those inner structures that are weak."

In a rural community known for helping itself, Atkins said debris cleanup is progressing rapidly after a tornado roared through earlier this month.

"We're extremely rural. We don't have contractors or anything like that. People were showing up at people's houses they didn't know just to help. I went by one home that only had two people trying to clean up. The roof had caved in. I made two calls and there were 50 people there within an hour. They had excavators and loaders."

But even as people ride the tide of collective compassion, they are asking why this happened. "They are questioning: why did this happen, God? Maybe God didn't make this happen - but it happened," said Atkins.

As Atkins talks to families about the storm, he tells them God can do two things: "He can calm the storm, or He can take us through the storm. It's an opportunity for us to reach people, whether they attend church or not. And that continues on."

Parts of Missouri were among many areas devastated by a tornado outbreak earlier this month. Although damage in Tennessee captured more headlines, Missouri's rural residents have great needs as well.

The Rev. Steven Redman, a United Church of Christ (UCC) disaster relief coordinator based in north-central Missouri, said he has watched people read signs of hope amid piles of debris. In the rural village of Little Rock - just north of Arrow Rock, population 100, a small UCC sanctuary was leveled by a tornado.

"We were walking around and everything was just flat," said Redman. "All the stained glass was gone. Everything was in total disarray. There was one beam, at the far end of all this destruction, that had been part of the steeple. And in the beam there was an electrical socket, and there was a light bulb. The light bulb hadn't been broken. To me, it spoke to the randomness of this storm. But I guess maybe that light bulb gave people a sense that there is a light in all this."

During Holy Week, Redman said, he believes "the resurrection hope is still there."

The trouble is that people are coping with the hardness of everyday life, even as they try to recover from a disaster.

A home next door to the Little Rock church was destroyed as well, said Redman. The couple got called out in the night because her mother passed away in a nursing home.

Their son went to stay with a neighbor, and when he came up out of his neighbor's basement, he could see his home was destroyed. "The same night, this young boy not only lost his grandmother, but his home, too," said Redman.

The Little Rock congregation has been able to worship at a building in Arrow Rock, and Redman believes the church will rebuild.

Worship - no matter where it takes place - has become vitally important to people who are searching for a way to express themselves in the wake of the violent tornadoes, agreed Atkins. "It's allowing people to have a voice. It's telling people that God is with you through this. People can recognize this. And this seems to give a lot of hope to families."

As recovery moves from the relief stage into long-term rebuilding, stories of wind speeds and harrowing rescues tend to leave the headlines. After that, recovery happens family by family, said Captain John Quinn of The Salvation Army in Tennessee. "It doesn't matter what the F-factor was on that tornado," he said. "It's total devastation to them. It really doesn't matter whether it was on the ground for 80 feet or 80 miles. The one common denominator in all of it is homes and lives that are destroyed. You can't put a value on that."

Leaders from national faith-based disaster response groups say they are determined to walk beside people for the long haul.

People must be aware that a disaster isn't over when you can't see the debris anymore, urged Redman. There will be invisible yet lingering emotional issues - and potential environmental hazards as well, he pointed out.

"There is not only just the natural disaster but also the disasters that come up which are chemical or technological," Redman said. "One of the things that happens right now is that all these houses got blown down - so they pile everything up into a pile and burn it. That's fine if it's wood. But if they've thrown in an old TV or toaster or something like that, it's not smoke anybody should be breathing. People need to become a little more accustomed to thinking in those terms."

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