Special Reports

In Joplin, voices lifted in song one week after storm

Peace Lutheran Church in Joplin lost its building in the May 22 tornado, but congregation members nevertheless held their regular worship service on Sunday, using the church’s parking lot.
Peace Lutheran Church in Joplin lost its building in the May 22 tornado, but congregation members nevertheless held their regular worship service on Sunday, using the church’s parking lot.

JOPLIN, Mo. | Jimmy and Chester Wilson — father and son — wrapped each other in a life-strong grip, whispering in tears.

Around them, members of their church were gathering on its parking lot because the previous Sunday’s killer tornado had destroyed the building. The organist was about to send music into the wind on a keyboard powered by a portable generator.

“It’s been so overwhelming,” said Chester Wilson, 69. “So overwhelming.”

A week of terror and then anguish over so many broken lives had come to this on Memorial Sunday.

It was a day that would bring President Barack Obama into town. A day for tearful silence, for renewing strength and singing again.

Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” began to rise up, and nearly 100 people who had gathered at Peace Lutheran Church found seats among the metal folding chairs members had dug out of the rubble three days before.

Benign clouds — small, scattered and white — hung high overhead.

Instead of church steeples, the people looked out on the gnarled spires of naked tree branches. Their music tossed in with the steady whine of chain saws and grinding bulldozers out there in the unending horizon of work to be done.

Among the Wilson families, the EF5 tornado had destroyed two houses and everything in them, three cars and their church building.

“But everyone’s alive,” Jimmy Wilson said.

Church members had dug out the church’s altar in pieces and assembled it over sawhorses — its wooden dove of peace a familiar comfort. The silver chalice for the communion service stood on top, though dented and a bit squashed.

“Lord of all gentleness,” they sang, “Lord of all calm”

Teenagers Hailey Radcliffe, 14, and Dana Stiles, 16, could see their high school some 400 yards across the littered plain.

In its gaping destruction, Dana could see into her English literature classroom. They had been reading “Antigone.” There was going to be a test.

The congregants could see the pile of steel and brick that was neighboring Harmony Heights Baptist Church, where three people died.

And when they sang, “We are marching in the light of God,” the people began to clap, a few at first, then all.

This was a day for everyone to find what Peace Lutheran’s pastor, William Pape, called “this healing power of life.”

By noon, people of Joplin and many of the thousands of volunteers took to lining streets, many waving American flags and signs saying, “We love Joplin,” to greet Obama as he joined Gov. Jay Nixon and Joplin ministers in a memorial service at Missouri Southern State University later in the afternoon.

The president honored so many who had died so others could live, like Dean Wells, the Home Depot manager who had ushered dozens to safety before the roof fell in.

Nixon talked of “a whirlwind the likes of which we’ve never seen” that brought forward “a spirit of resilience the likes of which we have also never seen.”

But the grim work continued Sunday — with state troopers still working to notify families of loved ones confirmed dead. By late afternoon, the families of 87 of the more than 130 dead had been notified. Forty-three people remain unaccounted for, authorities said, including four whose families have reported them dead but for whom official confirmation was still under way.

As the sun receded into the western sky, people of Joplin gathered again — this time in the park across from St. John’s Regional Medical Center, whose battered tower had become one of the city’s most visible icons.

City leaders wore T-shirts that read, “Joplin’s heart will sing again,” under the drawing of a tree for a city that loved its shaded lawns.

At 5:41 p.m., exactly one week after the roaring tornado bore into the city, the hundreds who gathered paused for a moment of silence.

For just a while, the chain saws rested. Everyone stopped.

The people heard only the sounds of their flags rippling in a summerlike breeze, and songbirds.

Colleen Hayse cried. Looking out across all the bowed heads, the 31-year-old wept at knowing that she had found shelter in the storm, that she had a story that had changed her life, and so had everyone here.

“I felt the hope and the sadness,” she said. “I felt the energy here. I was amazed at so many people alive.”

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