JOPLIN, Mo. | When it was over, pastor Charlie Burnett stood up from the rubble, still wearing his Sunday best. Rain spit in his face. Wind clawed his skin.
No roof. No walls. Beyond his outstretched hands, pummeled remains of brick and mortar lay drenched in glass and metal and blood.
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Burnett, blind for three years, couldn’t see who had lived or died. He heard crying, screaming, moaning. Familiar voices.
. … Grace has no puls
e. … I think Marie is dead
He could only stand there waiting for help, a blind preacher praying to a seemingly deaf God.
Until it hit him: God had heard their prayers.
For although three beloved members of Harmony Heights Baptist Church were called home, 50 others survived.
Including Burnett, who didn’t have a scratch.
Except for his broken heart.
It didn’t matter to Mona Bridgeford that her church was 16 miles down the road. She loved God, loved worshipping him. She usually went to both morning and evening services, her prayer journal in tow.
Last Sunday, a friend asked her to skip the evening service. Weather’s looking bad, she told her. Bridgeford grabbed her car keys anyway.
If it’s my time, it’s my time, she said with a laugh. What better way to go than to be in church?
Remembering the conversation later, her daughter, Brenda Lindo, shook her head. “It’s as if she knew.”
But there was another reason the 77-year-old Bridgeford didn’t want to miss: Her son, Leo Bridgeford, would be singing a solo. She was proud of him, proud of all her kids.
“She had a way of making all of us feel like we were her favorite,” Lindo said. “She did that with her friends, too.”
Known as the texting grandma, Bridgeford made shopping for family a sport, finding deals at garage sales, thrift stores or Walmart.
Each week she’d be out with this friend, or that group, eating at the Indian casino or dancing at the senior citizens center, or playing the dice game bunco.
When Lindo’s husband died a few years ago, Bridgeford moved in with her. A widow, she knew how hard and lonely the single life could be. Every year, Thanksgiving was her gift to the family. Family was so important.
“But she still gave her whole life to the Lord,” Leo Bridgeford said.
Sunday, when Leo finished his solo and sat back in the pew, his mother leaned over and whispered her praise. Five minutes later, as the congregation crouched in the hallway, Bridgeford’s daughter, grandchildren and friends were texting her, asking her to call.
Apparently, she tried.
After the rubble fell, Lindo’s phone in Seneca recorded a voice mail. The sound of voices. Survivors moving in the rubble.
On Thursday, a church member found an old prayer journal facedown.
The first page displayed Mona Bridgeford’s name. There were notes from a sermon, too. Just two sentences.
“In the rapture, church is no longer here. There will be a great tribulation.”
Grace and Rizaldy Aquino came to Missouri from the Philippines nine years ago.
“We moved here to have the American dream so we could be who we wanted to be,” said one of their daughters, 24-year-old Divine Aquino, who lives in Overland Park. She reached for her sister’s hand, Eunice, a 22-year-old Kansas State University student. “Mom always said family is all you really have in the end.”
Rizaldy and Grace found friends, jobs, happiness. The three kids blossomed.
Even through the recession, when Rizaldy took a job in Montana, commuting home when he could, the little family thrived. First one, then the other daughter graduated from high school, then college. Malachi, their 12-year-old, learned tae kwon do. His mom put his tournament trophies where everyone could see them.
For Grace, cooking meals was another way to show how she cared.
“She would feed you until you exploded,” Divine said. “And if you liked something, she’d make it again and again for you.”
She found a job at the mall in the China Pantry, where she drew in customers with her smile and happy attitude. Strangers knew her by name, so much so that when her daughters entered high school, their new friends were delighted to learn that “Grace at the mall” was their mom.
“They knew her before us,” Eunice said with a laugh.
Photos of family, dogs and babies plaster the family refrigerator. Grace fussed over babies, even strangers’ babies at the mall.
“But we weren’t able to give her any babies before she left us,” Divine said.
Instead, their mom often joked that her two dogs were her grandbaby doggies. (Both will be a part of her funeral, the family said.)
Divine is grateful that on Sunday, an hour before the storm, she called and teased her mom, a strong Christian believer, about the incorrect predictions the world would end the previous day.
I thought you’d get raptured, she told her.
Her mom shot back: I’d be lucky and blessed if it happened. I’m ready. Are you?
An hour later, rescuers at the church found Grace’s lifeless body, her arms still wrapped tight around Malachi.
He was safe.
Grace had saved her son.
Sitting in a shelter next to three cases of canned peaches, a woman tried to help as many tornado victims as she could. She gave them kindness, extra smiles, tissues to catch tears.
Her friend, Marie Piquard, taught her life lessons well.
Geneia Macken’s friendship with Piquard began 15 years ago when Macken was at her lowest point. Piquard was a middle-age lady who reached out to Macken with hugs, words of comfort, a caring ear.
Piquard seemed to know who needed that extra boost. She remembered church members’ birthdays and noticed when someone’s face reflected problems. She would send a card and note. Her messages went deep and usually opened friendships.
“She always encouraged me, saying, ‘I believe in you, Geneia,’ and then she’d give me that thumbs up sign, and a big smile and wink.”
Macken looked down, trying to find words.
“You never had to ask for help. She’d just do it.”
Piquant was the face of Harmony Heights Baptist Church. Her husband sang in a gospel band. When he died, the church swarmed around her.
She found love again a few years later, to Lloyd. Church members marveled at the couple, aging so gracefully, so giving to the younger members.
The night of the storm, the two took cover next to each other. Afterward, Lloyd called out to her. She said she was all right.
But the 78-year-old died minutes later, stunning the others.
“I know she’s in heaven now,” Macken said, “…but I’m gonna miss that thumbs up.”