A Year of Recovery Noted in Joplin, Missouri
Contributed By By Jason Swensen, Church News staff writer
Local Latter-day Saints and their neighbors observed with an equal measure of sadness and hope the first anniversary of the deadly tornado that destroyed much of Joplin, Missouri, USA.
The May 22, 2011, tornado is regarded as one of the worst natural disasters in U.S. history. More than 160 people lost their lives and thousands of buildings and homes were destroyed.
Members of the Joplin Missouri Stake were among those severely impacted by the tornado. Although no members were killed, more than two dozen LDS families lost their homes and the stake center was counted among the 28 houses of worship in the city that were destroyed.
The first-year anniversary marked a time to remember—and to look forward. On May 22, 2012, some 6,000 people participated in a Walk of Unity, a 3.5-mile (5.6 km) sojourn that traced the path of the tornado. The walk commenced at 5:41 p.m., the exact time that the tornado touched down on this southwestern Missouri community of churches and Show-Me-State grit.
Along the walk, participants made stops at key points to commemorate significant elements of the community’s ongoing recovery. One highlight was a stop at the new Joplin Missouri Stake Center, still under construction, to view the placement of the steeple atop the new building. The new stake center is being built in an elevated area that is visible throughout much of the community.
Joplin Missouri Stake president Creed R. Jones presided at a brief ceremony prior to the placement of the steeple. In his remarks, he noted that the steeple is representative of all of the churches in the community, especially those that were lost to the disaster.
“We all helped and worked and served together,” said President Jones, “with one heart and one purpose.”
In the days following the tornado, scores of Church members donned yellow Helping Hands T-shirts and offered service, sweat, and muscle to anyone in need. They were often joined by friends from other faiths and by complete strangers.
“No one who received or rendered service was asked about their religion. They (the LDS volunteers) were simply serving,” President Jones said.
A steeple, he added, directs one’s attention to heaven and to God’s tender mercies. For Latter-day Saints, he noted, “it also symbolizes the living Christ.”
President Jones was joined on the ceremonial stand by Joplin mayor Melody Colbert-Kean, along with various leaders of the city’s religious community. Lee Allphin, a Church member who was inside the stake center when the tornado struck, also shared comments.
The Walk of Unity concluded at the city’s Cunningham Park, where a memorial plaque was dedicated that includes the names of the residents who lost their lives to the disaster.
The anniversary observation “was a wonderful experience,” said President Jones. Still, many of the scars left behind by the tornado—be they physical or psychological—remain in the healing process. The disaster exacted a financial and employment toll on many members. Missionary work has been difficult because of the focus on recovery and the rebuilding of the stake center.
“But I couldn’t be more pleased with how the members have handled it—we’ve just made do,” President Jones said.
Ward meetings have been held at neighboring meetinghouses. The local Community of Christ congregation has allowed Latter-day Saints to utilize their building. The recent Joplin stake conference was held in a high school gym. Stake leaders continue to conduct leadership meetings and interviews in a double-wide trailer placed on the stake center property.
The new stake center will not be completed for several months, but members are already looking forward to the dedication of a new building to call their own.
President Jones also noted the many friends the Church has made over the past year.
“Relationships have been built, and the walls of prejudice have been brought down,” he said.