Many special events commemorate the May 22 one-year anniversary of the deadly tornado that decimated Joplin, Mo. But Immanuel Lutheran Church in Joplin plans to continue doing what it started immediately after the catastrophe — serving the community as it recovers.
“We don’t feel the need to add any more [commemoration] activities,” said Trent Davis, director of Disaster Response for Transform Joplin, a ministry started by Immanuel to help rebuild homes and lives.
Taking a break from work at the Transform Joplin Warehouse that serves as the ministry’s center, Davis talked about ongoing needs in a city where the EF5 twister killed some 160 people and destroyed or damaged about 8,000 homes.
Although “several hundred families” still need housing, Davis is grateful for continuing progress made with God’s grace and support from many Lutheran partners, including more than a third of the Synod’s some 6,000 congregations.
Davis expressed “overwhelming thankfulness” for the more than 2,200 LCMS members or congregations that have lent a helping hand to Immanuel’s tornado response through financial and material gifts or volunteers.
“All that we’ve done has been with God’s help and through you,” Davis said.
A year after the tornado, those accomplishments include:
- working in partnership with Lutheran Church Charities (LCC) to coordinate more than 3,000 volunteers who have worked on more than 800 projects or properties. Those volunteers have served on more than 300 teams, including many who trekked multiple times to Joplin. LCC, an Illinois-based LCMS Recognized Service Organization (RSO), continues to coordinate volunteers.
- opening the Transform Joplin Warehouse, the headquarters for the disaster-response ministry of Immanuel Lutheran Church as well as other faith-based groups. “We all have offices here and borrow tools and share volunteers,” Davis said of the 20,000-square-foot building owned by Immanuel members Amy and Brian Ipsen.
- operating a tool-lending library out of the warehouse. After the tornado, the DeWalt company donated $150,000 worth of tools, which it originally planned to divide between three groups. “But we were the only ones still here when they were ready to make the delivery, so we got all the tools,” Davis said. The tools are available to volunteers, so they don’t have to bring their own, and also to homeowners rebuilding or making repairs.
- partnering with the local Habitat for Humanity to build some 60 homes. Lutheran volunteers working in partnership with Habitat already have built nine sets of walls for three-bedroom homes in the Transform Joplin warehouse. “Building [the walls] in the warehouse is very efficient and saves on construction time,” Davis explained.
Volunteers, funds still needed
Looking back, Immanuel’s disaster response started hours after the storm, as the Rev. Gregory Mech, its pastor, and the congregation began working to turn the church’s Martin Luther School gym into an emergency relief center.
In those first months, Davis said, Immanuel and Lutheran partners:
- served meals, including three meals a day during that first month for as many as 500 people per meal.
- operated a free clinic, staffed by volunteer health-care professionals.
- provided shower facilities for volunteers.
- distributed several semi-trailer loads of food, clothes, hygiene and cleaning supplies to tornado survivors.
- provided LCC “Comfort Dogs” and other forms of therapy and counseling for tornado survivors.
- sponsored Camp Noah, a day-camp program for children affected by disasters.
Today, Transform Joplin’s greatest challenge is to assist the community’s large number of people who rent housing. Nearly 50 percent of the people who lost housing were renters, Davis said, and many former landlords lack the resources or desire to rebuild.
“There are lots of empty lots in Joplin,” Davis said. “We’re working hard to assist those former renters to become homeowners, but that’s a tough nut to crack.”
Both financial support and volunteers are needed to help with Joplin’s continued recovery. Immanuel Lutheran Church has committed to building several Habitat homes with funds already provided by donors. Each new Habitat home costs $50,000.
“We’re hoping [LCMS] congregations, circuits or districts also will be willing to sponsor a Habitat home and multiply our resources,” Davis said.
Volunteers also are needed, especially beginning in mid-August and throughout the fall. The ideal team, Davis said, is three to 15 people, including at least a few with construction or Habitat experience. (To register or learn more about volunteer opportunities, visit the LCC website at www.lutheranchurchcharities.org.)
Immanuel Lutheran Church has served at the center of a challenging disaster-response ministry for a year, but Davis stressed the congregation could never accomplish such outreach in Christ’s name without the support of LCMS partners.
In addition to LCC, he asked that “shout-outs” go to a long list, including: Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, Carthage, which continues to host volunteer teams; the LCMS Missouri District, whose most recent financial gift to Immanuel is a $20,000 grant to assist with Transform Joplin needs; Orphan Grain Train, the Nebraska-based RSO; and the Synod’s Disaster Response ministry.
To date, donors have provided more than $300,000 in grants through LCMS Disaster Response to help Immanuel meet needs in Joplin, including for emergency supplies and to help homeless families with temporary housing and other transitional needs.
In March, a team that included the Rev. Glenn F. Merritt, director of LCMS Disaster Response; the Rev. John Fale, interim co-director of the LCMS Office of International Mission; and the Rev. Dr. Edward Grimenstein, Disaster Response manager, met with Mech and Davis to discuss new ways the LCMS could continue to assist Immanuel and Transform Joplin in their ministries of mercy.
Merritt continues to work with Immanuel’s leaders and has offered additional LCMS financial support when requested by Transform Joplin.
While thoughts turned to decimated lives and homes on May 22, Davis said that he also feels thankful for ongoing healing and rebuilding. Much remains to tackle, he said, but “through God and through so many” in the LCMS, much has been accomplished.
To help strengthen witness and mercy when disasters strike:
- make an online gift at www.lcms.org/givenow/disaster.
- mail checks payable to The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod (noting “Disaster Relief” in the memo line) to The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
- call toll-free 888-930-4438.