Any disaster spawns its tales of miraculous escapes and freakish death and angels standing by. To get a sense of what happened, there's no substitute for going yourself.
Joplin, Mo., is a centrally located disaster, making the journey relatively easy. Of course, it should trouble anyone's conscience to go as a rubbernecking tourist, so I signed up as a volunteer after making a few telephone calls. On Tuesday morning I drove in and was sent out to "the field" within an hour. First day: hauling brush, scrap wood, and metal, and piling it up to be hauled away under the supervision of Service International (a Christian ministry based in Chesterfield, Mo.). Second day: stocking a church food pantry. Third day: figuring out what to do with a few thousand diapers and a couple million cans of baby food not immediately needed.
And hearing stories, like the one about the man who stopped by Home Depot to exchange an item while his wife and two grandchildren stayed in the truck. The tornado hit while he was inside, and he found himself being herded into the break room with other customers and employees. When the storm was over, in a matter of minutes, he emerged under a blue sky to find his truck inside the store, all three occupants critically injured, but alive. Or the story about the four girlfriends who were hanging out at Walmart: Three were taken, the other left.
Every displaced homeowner has a story, and Service International listens to each one. Often the owner will show up while the work is going on, and the work team asks permission to pray with him or her. Almost none refuse.
But every volunteer has a story, too. Matt drove from Wyoming to Missouri the day after, seeking to put his search-and-rescue experience to use. He arrived in Joplin to find the city an armed camp; only the outdated Navy service decal on his truck granted him admittance, and he's been there ever since. Karen, a recent widow in her 60s, came down from Indiana because she couldn't stand to be alone with her own grief and wanted to do something for someone else. She'd never done anything like that before. Randy, who owns a motorcycle shop in Minnesota, drove down with his Bobcat and two strapping sons to help clean up. This is his third or fourth disaster, and for each one he gets a new tattoo. A church group of seven (three ladies, three young teens, and one man) came from Ohio on an improvised mission trip. John, a retired electrician, was on his way back to California from Chicago when he read something about relief efforts on his iPhone. He got off the train in Kansas City, took a bus to Joplin, and grabbed a trolley to the church on the east side of town, where he heard they were fielding and housing volunteers. "I'm not a religious guy," he told us. "I just knew I had to be here. What do you mean by 'mission trip'? Isn't that a Mormon thing?"
A little community forms; our experiences weave together; emails are exchanged; stories keep coming.
Joplin isn't "news" anymore; except for regional commemorations, attention has gone elsewhere. But it will be news to the locals for a long, long time. In an age of overwhelming officialdom, with all its professionals, regulations, and permits, it's reassuring to know that there's still room for amateur Samaritans to roll up their sleeves and pitch in. If you have a few days to spare this summer, or the youth group is getting bored, consider Joplin, or Tuscaloosa, Ala., or any of a number of flooded communities that could use some help. For Joplin, here and here are good places to start. Go make a story.