The howling storm. The sirens. Then throat-tightening fear in the moments after, when words would not come.
Lexington Theological Seminary alumnae Jill Cameron Michel and Fay Barnes Blevins minister at separate Disiples of Christ churches in Joplin, Missouri, but in a moment, they found their lives and ministries intertwined as an entire community found itself in crisis.
Michel, a 1998 graduate, is the pastor at South Joplin Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Married to Jim, Michel has two children, Cameron and Teegan, and two step-children, Katy and John. When the deadliest tornado in recent U.S. history struck, they were gathered with the SJCC youth at the Michel home that Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, Michel noted, the youth would have been meeting as usual in a second-floor room at the church, where the roof would be peeled back like the lid of a can. Michel’s home was untouched.
Blevins, a 2010 graduate, is the first female pastor of First Christian Church in Joplin and is married to Wesley. Blevins was on her way back from a church meeting about 20 miles away when “the sky suddenly turned black…and we heard the tornado warning.” She and an elder from the church took shelter under an underpass as the wind pushed and the hail pounded the car. Cell service was lost, and Blevins was unable to reach her husband for some time. She eventually found him at their apartment, remarkably undamaged despite the chaos around them. That day and in the weeks to follow, 162 lives would be claimed by the tornado.
FCC sustained very little damage, while SJCC was devastated. Most of the roof was gone and much water damage followed in the torrential rain in the days following the tornado. Whole communities were wiped away in the 13-mile path of destruction, and Blevins and Michel set to work immediately helping both parishioners and strangers find shelter, warmth, clothing, and grace. “It was baptism by fire–or wind,” Blevins says. Their own grief and shock were helped by the outpouring of support from around the nation. Their LTS family played an important part as current students rallied to coordinate supplies from their home churches, and alums and friends reached out with prayers and gifts as Blevins and Michel worked to help set up distribution centers and minister to victims. Blevins’ church opened its doors to Michel’s, giving them a place to worship while their church is rebuilt. Months later, there is still much work to do. The aftermath is not over. Winter clothes will be distributed from Blevins’ church in October. Families continue to struggle with lost loved ones, lost homes, lost jobs. So much loss.
Gifts of time, money and prayer are still needed, Michel noted. Volunteers from church groups, readily available in the first weeks, are fewer but just as necessary as rebuilding begins. “This is both a physical journey and an emotional one that we will be on for some time,” Michel said.