Special Reports

In Joplin, churches help rebuild faith

Pastor Charlie Burnett, second from left, of Harmony Heights Baptist Church in Joplin, Mo., spoke to his parishoners in a bible study class at the Bethel Assembly of God Church in south Joplin, the temporary home of the Harmony heights congregation after the May 22nd tornado destroyed their church. Burnett, who is blind, rode out the May 22nd tornado with his parishoners during a service. Three members of the church were killed inside the church. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star
Pastor Charlie Burnett, second from left, of Harmony Heights Baptist Church in Joplin, Mo., spoke to his parishoners in a bible study class at the Bethel Assembly of God Church in south Joplin, the temporary home of the Harmony heights congregation after the May 22nd tornado destroyed their church. Burnett, who is blind, rode out the May 22nd tornado with his parishoners during a service. Three members of the church were killed inside the church. DAVID EULITT/The Kansas City Star The Kansas City Star

When Pastor Charlie Burnett envisions his church, Harmony Heights Baptist, it’s a massive structure, 33,000 square feet with a steeple touching the sky. Families fill the familiar wooden pews.

And when he pictures Joplin, his home for three decades, it’s complete. Mature oaks and maples, established businesses and neighborhoods.

He tries to conceive how a tornado ripped away a third of the city and erased his church down to a concrete slab, but he knows his imagination can’t fully grasp the rawness of what remains.

Burnett lost his sight three years ago. In his mid-60s, he could no longer even see the sun.

 Since the storm, he wonders whether being blind has been a blessing. He hasn’t had to endure the months of anguish seeing miles of barren land day after day.

Yet he also felt helpless, unable to rescue church members from the debris that fell during the 5 p.m. service that Sunday. A man who always found comfort in working with his hands couldn’t help people who had lost their homes.

Today, he doesn’t have to see to know that his city, and all its churches and people, have changed. Others feel it, too.

Churches with different ideologies came together, leaning on one another to help in the recovery. An Assembly of God church opened its doors to a Baptist congregation. A Presbyterian church welcomed Lutherans.

People who lost their church buildings jumped in to help residents who lost their homes. Didn’t matter what their denominations were.

“What the tornado did, in some way, was knock down the human walls around what our differences are,” said Renee White, chairwoman of the emotional/spiritual needs subcommittee of the city’s Long Term Recovery Committee. “Afterward we said, ‘We’re a community of faith regardless of what our beliefs are.’ We realized we’re all a collective body.”

During this holiday season, congregations throughout Joplin and neighboring communities continue to turn to prayer and one another to get themselves, and their neighbors, through this journey to being whole again.

Dwight Seek, pastor of Joplin’s Seventh-day Adventist Church, which is temporarily sharing its facility with Southside Baptist, said what the people and churches have experienced in the past seven months is similar to military combat.

“When you’re facing death, or facing incredible need, you realize there’s a much greater enemy than whatever perceived issues of conflict you may have with someone else,” said Seek, who served in the Marines. “It becomes, ‘Wow, I really need you and you need me so we can face the common enemy together.’ In this case it happened to be the weather and the destruction it produced.”

For Burnett, the same angst that afflicted him when he went blind hit him after the tornado. He wants to be prepared for his church members’ needs.

They’re going to come to me

, he thought three years ago and again in May.

How will I get through to them? My people are watching me. How will I handle this?

The difference is that now he’s learned how to persevere, how to handle the inner strains and outside stresses and come out stronger. The lessons he learned after going blind he now finds himself teaching his more than 100 active congregation members as they recover from the storm.

“You don’t let circumstances dictate who you are, you dictate to the circumstances who you are,” he told his congregation. “Life’s not over. You’re still here.”

• • • 

Burnett had just stepped up to deliver the evening’s sermon when the second siren sounded May 22. He planned to talk about Jesus’ appearance to Peter and John after his resurrection.

Many church services across Joplin hadn’t started yet. Most start at 6 on Sunday evenings, but at Harmony Heights, 2025 Indiana Ave., it’s 5. Nobody thought much about the first siren, but the second one caused them to stop. Time to go to a safe place, which in a church with no basement means small rooms like the library, video room and nursery.

Mike Tatum, who leads the congregation in singing, guided Burnett out of the sanctuary and down the hall. They’d meet their wives in the video room.

By the time the storm hit, Tatum and Burnett had stepped into the doorway of the room. With fierce wind blowing and debris starting to fly around them, Tatum said, “We better get down.” The two dropped to their hands and knees, with Tatum’s hand on the pastor’s shoulder.

Burnett can still hear the sounds of that night. The smashing of windows, the crashing of walls, the swoosh of the roof flying off.

Once the storm was over, and many members of the congregation were trapped in the rubble, Burnett helped Tatum get debris off his back. Tatum then told the pastor: “I’ll see if I can help the others.”

When Burnett tried to move one of his feet, then the other, he realized he was trapped. “Like I was in prison,” he says.

He was helpless.

“I could hear people say, ‘So and so is hurt over here,’ ” Burnett says. “Or, ‘I need help.’ I realized I could do absolutely nothing. I couldn’t see. I couldn’t walk anywhere, couldn’t help people with their troubles.

“All I could do is stand there and pray.”

He stops and thinks about what he just said.

“And you know what, that’s probably exactly what I should have been doing at that moment.”

At one point, once he was in a safer place, a boy he’d known for a few years came up to him.

“I don’t know how my mama is,” the 12-year-old told the pastor.

“I don’t either, son,” Burnett said, “but we’ll find out as soon as we can.”

Before long, a church member quietly told Burnett that the boy’s mother was one of three women who died inside the church that day.

While he couldn’t help the others, Burnett knew he could help this boy, whose father was working in Montana.

He and others took the boy to be with relatives, comforting him along the way, but not telling him about his mom. Not yet, not until he was with family.

The boy, along with several others who lost their homes in the storm, has moved from Joplin and away from Harmony Heights Baptist Church. Though Burnett hasn’t talked to the boy, he has spoken with his father by phone. One day he hopes to talk with the son.

Forty members of Harmony Heights were injured in the storm. The homes of one-third of the church’s families were destroyed or damaged.

By the end of the second week after the tornado, the pastor had officiated at four funerals, for the three women killed inside the church and a fourth member who died of cancer.

“That was the most difficult week of my life,” he says. “Dealing with the emotions, the families. I had people calling me saying, ‘Pastor, we’re not able to find Mom.’

“I was praying for strength and wisdom. It was a very dark time.”

• • • 

Dozens of churches were in the storm’s path. At least 17 were destroyed or severely damaged. The tragedy went beyond lost sanctuaries and steeples.

“Some of us lost members,” says Dan King, an officer of the Joplin Area Ministerial Alliance. “Members’ houses were destroyed. Some pastors themselves had their houses destroyed.

“After the initial shock was over and we could ascertain what our congregation was facing, we would immediately reach out and open the door to anybody.”

Two nights after the storm, another round of severe weather headed to Joplin, and sirens went off again. Leaders of Joplin’s Seventh-day Adventist Church had told neighbors who didn’t have basements that they could go to their church, which wasn’t damaged by the tornado, for shelter. Neighbors were told the church would be left open.

When people arrived, though, the doors had inadvertently been locked. They called Pastor Seek, who told them to break in.

Someone did, taking a hammer to the plate-glass door.

Once the rebuilding began, churches stepped in to help people across town. A network formed. If one church had the materials but needed a plumber or drywall hanger, leaders knew which congregation to call and inquire about that.

“Everyone was like, ‘OK, what do you need,’ ” said Roger Lieb, minister of education and communication for College Heights Christian Church, which was not damaged in the storm and became a vital part of the recovery. “We realized with such a devastating storm, and so many needs at once, that pulling our resources together and helping each other out was the obvious thing to do.”

Shortly after the storm, members of College Heights reached out to help a woman restore her home. The tornado had killer her husband, and members who knew her well wanted to help with repairs.

“We had crews here helping from all over the nation,” Lieb says. “We sent crews over to her house to remove the siding, another to rebuild her deck.”

Once it was time to put up the new siding, members of College Heights contacted another church near her home to see whether its members wanted to take over and finish the job.

“They did and now they have a relationship with her,” Lieb says. “We’re all communicating with each other now to make sure everyone is taken care of.”

Because of that, church members and leaders across Joplin say they’re stronger today.

“I’ve seen lives healed, relationships healed,” says Tatum, of Harmony Heights. “Maybe people who were harboring against something that didn’t amount to anything — the storm bridged that.

“It’s a tough way to get there, but God has lots of ways to get our attention.”

Generations Free Will Baptist Church’s building, not far from Harmony Heights, was destroyed. People from across the country came to help. A contractor from Arkansas, also a Free Will Baptist, showed up and salvaged the church’s air-conditioning and furnace unit so it can be used in the new church.

And a Methodist church near Springfield brought hundreds of sandwiches one day to hand out to volunteers and people of Joplin’s Free Will Baptist. Other groups came to help with debris.

“People all over the country, they look at what happened and try to support us, do what they can,” said Pastor Jerald Bass of Generations Free Will Baptist in Joplin. “Even if the church they go to has a different name on the sign.”

Since 1994, pastors from various denominations across Joplin have met once a week. Since May 22, those meetings have taken on new meaning. The pastors pray for healing. They give thanks for what they’ve been blessed with.

“We’ve seen churches and people come together in our common need that perhaps wouldn’t otherwise,” King says. “You can’t say it’s a blessing; you don’t want to.

“But out of it is going to rise a camaraderie and friendship that’s going to be very strong.”

• • • 

A little church in Anchorage, Alaska, heard about Harmony Heights after the storm. Burnett doesn’t know how or exactly what the members read or saw on TV.

But Broken Mercy Fellowship church has sent money more than once and told the Joplin pastor to expect a bimonthly tithe from his church until the new building is finished. Everything Broken Mercy sends goes toward that end.

“I don’t even know what denomination they are,” Burnett says. “I guess I never asked. Maybe next time we talk I will.”

More than 150 churches and individuals have offered to help Harmony Heights. Groups have brought in quilts and supplies. They’ve offered pews and organs and other equipment for the new building, for which the church should break ground sometime next month.

“It’s been an outpouring of love you wouldn’t believe,” says Ann Burnett, the church’s secretary and Charlie’s wife.

Three years ago, a blood vessel burst in the pastor’s right eye. It’s the same thing that happened nearly 13 years before and took the use of his left eye.

After he lost his eyesight, he sought refuge in the book of James. He no longer reads the Bible but listens to it on an MP3 player. He’s listened over and over to Scripture from James about trials.

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.

He finds himself relying on that Scripture again.

Members of his church say the pastor is consistent, even a better preacher since he lost his sight. He can’t rely on notes during a service, so he must know what he’s teaching through and through.

His unflappable nature helps give them strength, members say. Not so much by his words, but through his actions.

They learned that when he lost his sight and again after the storm.

“When things are tough,” says longtime member Gene Henderson, “Charlie is the same all the way through. Things are going to change and we’re all up to the challenge and we better be. If not, we’re going to lose.”

Burnett fears that the good will his town is feeling, and the willingness for churches to look past denominations and differences, may be short-lived. That in two or three or maybe five years, everything will be back to the way it was before the storm, the walls rising again.

Yet, he concentrates on now. He’s dedicated to not letting the circumstances from the storm dictate who he, his congregation and town are. They all must dictate to the circumstances who they are.

“We’re determined to come through this,” Burnett says. “I’ll be anxious to talk to you a year from now, walk you through the new building.

“We’re much more aware of the value of the church. And what Christ did for the church that day.”

Related stories from Kansas City Star