Archdiocesan parishes, groups opened wallets and hearts to tornado-stricken city
by Jessica Langdon
At first glance, Cassie Hurst saw only the devastation, pain and suffering in tornado-stricken Joplin, Mo.
“You look at the ruined homes that stretch on for miles and the lives that have been forever changed, and you can’t help but think that things will never get better,” said Cassie, a member of Immaculate Conception Parish in Louisburg.
It didn’t take long, though, for the youth group member to see much more.
“But then you take a closer look and you start to see the little things — the notes, spray-painted [on] homes, saying, ‘God loves Joplin’ and ‘God bless the volunteers.’
“You see people everywhere trying to make a difference.”
And in the five months since an EF5 tornado devastated Joplin, the people there have noticed the difference those touches — big and small — have made.
“When they see their city, they don’t see a pile of rubble,” said Cassie. “They see hope and God’s love. They see the little things.”
People from across the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas opened their hearts to the people of Joplin after the May 22 tornado.
They gave money — about a quarter million dollars — to help Joplin and other tornado-ravaged areas. Groups helped in the cleanup efforts. Many donated items. And thousands offered their prayers.
Beginning to heal
In September, Bishop James V. Johnston Jr. of the Diocese of Springfield-Cape Girardeau wrote to Archbishop Joseph F. Naumann to express his appreciation for the generosity the Catholics of the archdiocese had showered on the people of Joplin in their time of need.
Along with the personal letter, Bishop Johnston sent a copy of his column that appeared in his diocesan paper, The Mirror. In that, he provided an update on the progress that had been made, and an accounting of how financial gifts have been used.
“There is still much to be done — still great suffering and uncertainty in the lives of many citizens,” Bishop Johnston wrote in his column. “Yet, there are also many signs of God’s grace at work, pointing to a future full of hope.
“It is inspiring and gratifying to witness such a generous and unselfish reaction and outpouring to this tragedy.”
Although donations used to accomplish work on every front, from debris removal to immediate financial needs, much focus, he wrote, went into preparing a place for students at St. Mary Elementary School to return to in the fall.
The school was destroyed by the tornado.
Research and discussions led to a remodel of a building on the campus of McAuley High School in Joplin, and the students seemed to be getting off to a good start, wrote Bishop Johnston.
From Kansas to Joplin
Parishes across the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas took up special collections to help after spring tornadoes swept across several communities.
Groups quickly made plans to help.
Few acted faster than the folks in Louisburg, where more and more people spent sleepless nights worrying about their neighbors a few hours away.
When the youth group’s idea of going to Joplin reached Msgr. Robert Bergman, the pastor of Immaculate Conception Parish quickly gave his blessing.
“Do it,” he said simply.
Coincidentally, it just so happened that Durham School Services in Louisburg had also been looking for a way to help Joplin. When it learned the Louisburg group was going, donating the bus was the perfect answer. Immaculate Conception parishioner Mary Jo Shelton, who was a driver, donated her time behind the wheel.
When the group’s leader called St. Peter the Apostle Parish in Joplin, she was connected with a volunteer named Dottie Elbert. The parish was just beginning to work with the Matthew 25 Project, a national ministry that pairs faith with service. Elbert couldn’t have been more receptive to the idea.
So 30 people squeezed onto a single bus — packed with rakes, toys, food, money and other donations from across the state — and set off to Joplin June 24-26.
They didn’t know where they were going to sleep.
All they were certain of was they were going to help.
There were tears when the kids first saw the destruction.
But when the busload of teens hit St. Peter Parish for a meal that first day, at least one problem proved to have a simple solution: The principal offered them the keys to the school so the teens would have a place to stay.
Making a heartfelt difference
The next day, the group went house to house, distributing water and other items, working on cleanup efforts, and praying with people.
During the trip, the group also met Father Justin Monaghan, pastor of St. Mary Parish, who had held onto a faucet to survive the tornado.
When the group went to Mass in Joplin, the priest accepted the check they had brought and was moved by a poster the youth presented. A young Immaculate Conception parishioner who had lost both of her parents and now lived with a relative painted a picture of a tornado. She added the words: “A tornado cannot ‘brake’ your heart.”
The group also had rosaries, crosses and Bibles for the people of Joplin.
“The best part was that our youth group attended Mass, and the priest announced who we were and what we were doing there,” said Jacob Dow. “We also presented some gifts, and everyone got up and applauded for us. It was a long and heavy applause for us. I was near tears, and people were hugging us, shaking our hands. All the hard work paid off. They may have lost many things, but they’ll never lose hope and friends and God.”
On the bus trip back to Louisburg, they wrote down their thoughts about the trip.
“I am so glad I got to experience doing something like this,” said Anna Renfro. She had wanted to go to Japan and help when the tsunami hit, but that wasn’t possible. With Joplin just a few hours away, she could go.
“I am so happy that I got to make a difference in Joplin, even though it was a small difference,” she said. “I definitely plan on going back as soon as possible. The people of Joplin need all the help they can get, or at least our thoughts and prayers.”
Another group of 30 left Louisburg for Joplin in early August. Nancy Hermreck and part of her youth group from Garnett also went along.
That time, Msgr. Bergman spent a day working alongside the volunteers.
The teens shingled a roof, did yardwork, and worked at a Salvation Army distribution center, among other projects.
Planning for the future
Now back in Louisburg, they’re planning to return to Joplin as soon as they can.
“The total support of our parish family got us there,” said Immaculate Conception high school youth director Linda Roberts. “The young people certainly have created a spark in our parish.”
They know a lot of work lies ahead in Joplin, and they want to be part of it.
“Going to Joplin made a lasting impression on me,” said Beth Renfro. “I have never seen devastation like they have suffered. It puts life in perspective and reminds me of the value of serving others. I will definitely go back to help again and encourage others to do the same.
“I am truly thankful to our youth group for providing the opportunity to serve.”