Picking up the pieces: Jill Cameron Michel

I am pastor at South Joplin Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  Married to Jim Michel, I have two children: Cameron and Teegan and two step-children: Katy and John.

South Joplin Christian Church was founded in 1903.  We average just under 100 in worship.  It is a congregation that although largely a traditional, mainline congregation, has been doing intentional work seeking God’s vision for the future.

On the day of the tornado my family was hosting the youth group at our home.  It was the last regular meeting of the school year and we had them out for a cook out.  So, when the tornado hit the youth group was at our home.  This was fortunate because we live north of town and although we had bad weather and large hail were out of the path of the tornado.  Had they met as usual at the church, they would have been meeting on the upper floor when the roof of the church peeled back.

The first we knew of tornado damage was when the parent of two teens called to say their friends had been hit and to ask us to keep her kids here while she and her husband went to help.  Because there were several church members who lived in that same neighborhood, my husband headed in to town to check on them while I remained with the youth and leader to feed the kids and check in with other parents.  Very quickly we began getting more phone calls and seeing reports on internet that damage was much more widespread than we originally thought.  We made contact with all the kids’ parents.  The only of our youth whose home was hit was the home of our male youth leader and his son – his wife and daughter were home at the time, but she called to say they were fine.  Michael, the youth leader, remained amazingly calm and stayed until we had made contact with all the kids’ parents and figured out where we were delivering everyone.  Michael, the youth and I headed into town.  I met another church member at the church and after assessing the damage there, we went further into the tornado zone to begin trying to locate families from the church.

Words fail me.  As people who have come to volunteer here can attest, it looks bad on television but it is nothing compared to being here.  On television you can look away, but when you are standing in the midst of the destruction there is nowhere you can look to get away from it.  Because the path was so large (6 miles long within city limits and ½ – ¾ miles wide) it was overwhelming.  Each day for at least the first week I was still discovering how far reaching the path of destruction was.  On the Saturday following our Sunday tornado I was driving volunteers to a site where they were going to work when I looked up and saw a neighborhood I hadn’t even known to worry about where people who had recently attended our church lived – I was overwhelmed with the reality that I hadn’t even known to be worried about them until then.  It took us a full two weeks before we had located everyone in the church who lost their homes.

As I mentioned earlier, our home was not damaged.  The church where I serve (South Joplin Christian Church) lost 1/3 of the rood (it simply peeled back like the lid of a sardine can) and many windows.  Because of the heavy rain that continued for the next two days, we received extensive water damage inside.  Half of the children’s classroom (top floor) had to be gutted and redone.  The sanctuary, narthex and Children Worship & Wonder rooms all had to be totally gutted.  The library and two adult classrooms in the basement as well as part of Fellowship Hall had to be redone.  There was a point when I could stand in the basement and see the sky!  Work is underway and we are hopeful that we will return to our building in November.  First Christian Church where Fay Barnes Blevins serves has been gracious to host us since the tornado.

Life has been an interesting dance between the usual and the unusual.  While the regular rhythm of life still exists – Sunday still comes every seven days, committees still meet, people still get sick and people still celebrate births and deaths, new school years and weddings, anniversaries and retirements – it is all done in the shadow of the tornado.  This means weddings have to be moved to different locations, babies have to born at different hospitals, funeral dinners have to be held at other churches, school starts in different buildings.  This also means that I am always asking the question of how even our usual things need to be different in light of the tornado and always paying attention to where people are in their grieving and healing processes.

As disaster relief people will tell you – it’s a marathon, not a sprint.  About six weeks after the tornado I felt like we were finally taking that to heart.  At that point my workdays looked more like they had before the tornado.  Things that since May 22nd had felt urgent shifted as I realized they would be long time companions.

In addition to the usual work on ministry and tending to the special needs of folks in our congregation, I have been trying to keep aware of the activities of the Long Term Recovery Committee, have been helping coordinate work for work groups, have been fielding calls and emails from many who are interested in helping, and we are in the process of building a Mission Station (housing for volunteers who will come in the coming years) at South Joplin Christian.

There is no room to list the many things that are left to do.  For years we will be recovering and rebuilding.  This is both a physical journey and an emotional one that we will be on for some time.  Physical rebuilding has really just begun and at this point is mainly being done by those with resources (usually good insurance settlements).  In the coming years volunteers will be counted on to help with the many who do not have the resources to complete their rebuilding or repairs.

I did hear from many with whom I had built relationships at LTS and I heard from Sonny Wray on behalf of LTS.  It was helpful because these were people who were calling or emailing to check in but who also understood that my time was in high demand and so they were calls of comfort not calls that took much out of me.

Not only in Joplin, but in any place that experiences significant disaster, remember the recovery will take years.  What this means is that prayers, donations, gifts of time and energy will be needed for a long time to come.  It is easy to shift our attention to the newest disaster, but there is a real skill to finding a balance of remembering those who are still responding while also caring for those with new needs.

I also always go back to Amy Gopp’s (Week of Compassion) advice about waiting until communities are ready to actually go and help.  There was a need for immediate responders and many came.  There were also days when there were really too many volunteers for folks here to coordinate.  There will be a need for long term responders and we hope people will continue to come.  The key is to go at the time the community is ready for you and can use you.  It’s also important for people to understand that when they go to help they need to be able to not be a burden on those they are helping.  This means the best help comes from those who can provide their own transportation, find their own lodging (which is often offered by Disciples churches), provide their own meals (unless the local system offers meals), and often even contribute financially to the materials they will be using.

I have learned that the body of Christ is amazing.  I have watched churches and people of faith in Joplin working together in tremendous ways.  I have also watched as churches and people of faith outside Joplin have reached out a caring hand in ways I hadn’t ever thought of.  The responses people have made have been as if this was their own disaster.  I have been reminded that we are all part of one body and have seen the truth of the statement that when one hurts, we all hurt.

I have also learned a lot about what is helpful and some about what is not.  The ways people and churches have responded to us will forever change how I and the congregation I serve respond to other people’s disasters.  I continue to be overwhelmed with the generous hearts of people throughout our Disciples and UCC churches and beyond!