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The Joplin Marathon

click to embiggen (image: matthewspiel)

It started last Sunday, when the winds finally stopped and people began to crawl out of their basements and stumble out of their homes and businesses. Or, in far too many cases, what was left of their homes and businesses.

“It” is the Joplin Marathon.

A friend of mine, the Rev. Bill Pape, is the pastor of Peace Lutheran Church in Joplin, Missouri. Their building is now scattered across miles and miles of southwestern Missouri. Thankfully, all their members are now accounted for, but the devastation in the community — physical, emotional, and spiritual — is immense.

My bishop, Jerry Mansholt, traveled to Joplin this past Wednesday with others from his staff and Kevin Massey, Executive Director of Lutheran Disaster Response (LDR). The bishop sent a letter to all the congregations of our synod (our regional geographic area, like a diocese or district in other denominations) describing his visit, and also posted it to the synod website. Among his thoughts:

We listened to their stories and experiences, all varied, all moving. We spoke words of comfort, shed tears. The conversation shifted to the future—clean up, rebuilding; next steps. I expect there will be much more grieving in the weeks and months to come as the magnitude of the loss, the reality of the situation and the challenges before them sink in.

I guess pictures never fully capture and convey what a situation is really like, and that’s how I felt driving into Joplin and then seeing Peace Lutheran and the neighborhood around it. The destruction is unbelievable—the landscape nothing but rubble. I heard one national disaster worker say this is the worst destruction he’s seen since Katrina, and he’d been to Tuscaloosa. . . .

Where the city will dispose all this debris is a huge question. But clean up cannot begin until the missing are accounted for. Search and rescue teams were working their way through the neighborhoods.

I spoke with some young people on the parking lot of Peace Lutheran Church. Two were from homes totally destroyed, as was their high school one block from the congregation. But their real sadness was in not knowing the whereabouts of a close friend. I thought of them later as I saw a rescue team crawling in and inspecting one of the hundreds of overturned and mangled autos. . . .

The challenges for Joplin are enormous—a community where suddenly 3,000 homes no longer exist; 500 businesses no longer exist; a high school and 4 elementary schools no longer exist; a major medical facility suffering debilitating damage. . . .

Another Lutheran Disaster Relief worker posted this on the ELCA’s disaster response blog:

We have all seen the images of Joplin on television, with destruction stretching as far as you can see, but there are simply no words sufficient to describe seeing it in person.  The thing that always stuns me with tornadoes is the way they cut a swath of damage but leave surrounding areas mostly untouched.  Driving south on Range Line Road, which runs on the east side of the city, there was not much sign of tornado damage at first. But then we crested a small hill, the disaster area spread out in front of us, and I instantly felt tears well up in my eyes.  Homes leveled to the foundations, cars flipped over as if they were toys, businesses flattened, trees stripped of all leaves and branches.  Block after block after block, there are buildings which will need to be simply demolished and started over again.  For a concentrated area, it may be the worst devastation I have seen in my more than five years with Lutheran Disaster Response.

Unnoticed by most media organizations is a group behind the scenes in Joplin and behind the scenes at disasters around the country: National Voluntary Organizations Active in Disasters. National VOAD is a group of organizations committed to dealing with devastation through preparedness, response, relief, recovery, and mitigation. Working together, they coordinate the efforts of various organizations so that gaps are not left or efforts duplicated.(Ironically, National VOAD was meeting in Kansas City earlier this week when tornadoes briefly touched down in the KC metro area.)

Some of the National VOAD member groups are religious, like LDR, but others are not, like the American Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and the Humane Society. Some groups are great at the immediate response, bringing in tents, portable kitchens and hospitals, and working to locate survivors. Other groups are more skilled to handle cleanup. Still others are focused on rebuilding. Some groups have teams of well-trained staff and skilled professionals, while other groups coordinate and supervise the work of volunteers who offer (as one such volunteer put it) “strong backs and weak minds” to do the masses and masses of grunt work necessary. All these organizations need to coordinate their efforts so that work isn’t duplicated, so that gaps aren’t left, and so that no one gets in anyone else’s way.

Long after the cameras are gone from Joplin and the national spotlight shifts to something else, organizations like LDR and their partners in National VOAD will still be around.

They’re running the Joplin Marathon.

For many in the US, sports on the Memorial Day weekend means the Indy 500, but for folks in southwest Missouri, the Joplin Marathon is the only race that matters right now.

My thanks to all who are running it.


Photo h/t to Matt Spiel, who posted the image to flikr the day after the tornado hit and wrote this along with it:

This is by my best estimates of the path of the tornado that went through Joplin around 5:45pm on May 22nd. It pretty much cut the town in half from west to east. Anything in the pink is basically leveled. Downed trees, power-lines and debry damage are all over town and most severe around the tornado path. My house is the pin just to the south . . . please keep in mind, this is ROUGH estimate based on my traveling to help friends last night and today.

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I'm an ordained Lutheran pastor with a passion for language, progressive politics, and the intersection of people's inner sets of ideals and beliefs (aka "faith" to many) and their political actions. I mostly comment around here, but offer a weekly post or two as well. With the role that conservative Christianity plays in the current Republican politics, I believe that progressives ignore the dynamics of religion, religious language, and religiously-inspired actions at our own peril. I am also incensed at what the TheoCons have done to the public impression of Christianity, and don't want their twisted version of it to go unchallenged in the wider world. I'm a midwesterner, now living in the Kansas City area, but also spent ten years living in the SF Bay area. I'm married to a wonderful microbiologist (she's wonderful all the way around, not just at science) and have a great little Kid, for whom I am the primary caretaker these days. I love the discussions around here, especially the combination of humor and seriousness that lets us take on incredibly tough stuff while keeping it all in perspective and treating one another with respect.

And Preview is my friend.