Sunday morning I preached in Calhoun, Missouri, and baptized and confirmed eight people. I was present to dedicate building renovations, including beautiful new stained glass windows and bathrooms redone for handicapped access.
Sunday evening, I received word about the storms in Joplin, and all our attention turned to those suffering the devastating loss of loved ones and property. Monday morning involved Disaster Response meetings and communication plans for assessing damage and to communicate appropriately to all those churches desiring to help. St. Paul UMC, one of our conference’s strongest and fastest growing congregations, lost their Worship Center, and St. James church is gone. The District Office has been damaged beyond repair, and our District Superintendent has managed to salvage only her Ordination Certificate and her chalice. Every congregation in Joplin has members who have lost their homes, and several of those who have died were United Methodists, including three from the Webb City UMC. The pastor of First Church has had significant damage to his home. Five schools and the hospital have been lost. The impact was catastrophic to the community.
By Monday evening I was in Vienna, Missouri, dedicating a new fellowship hall and classrooms for adult and youth Sunday Schools. New facilities are often a wonderful sign and symbol of new life and vision and commitment, and it certainly was for this church. As I drove to dedicate new buildings in Vienna, I spoke to pastors on the phone in Joplin about the loss of their facilities. The juxtaposition of these experiences stimulated several reflections about the nature of our ministry, the message of our Lord, the meaning of the church, and the place of buildings in our work.
The city of Joplin was named after Rev. Harris Joplin, an early Methodist preacher who settled there in 1839. For years, he hosted people in his home and led them in worship, prayer, and singing. His ministry was one of hospitality in the truest sense, and he used his own humble dwelling as a tool for ministry. As far as I know, the building he used no longer exists, but the church community he founded provided the seeds from which dozens of area congregations have sprouted. All of us who are Missouri United Methodists are to some degree the fruit of his ministry.
Remember the song “We Are the Church” from the 1970’s? The first verse reminds us that “the church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people.” And then there is the classic hymn that reminds us that “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ our Lord.” We love our buildings, and we use them as tools for ministry, and they are signs of vision, commitment, and hospitality. But we also know that ultimately, the church of Jesus Christ is something infinitely greater, more enduring and eternal. The building of the church of Jesus Christ is never as simple as constructing a facility of bricks and mortar.
Tornadoes and hurricanes and floods and fires can take away our beloved and sacred places in a moment’s time, but the love of God that binds us to another is not nearly so vulnerable. God’s persistent and persevering love causes us to reach out to help a neighbor and to embrace strangers and to assist one another in the rebuilding of lives. The church is not the pile of lumber and bricks left after the destroying winds and rains; the church is the gathering of people standing above the rubble unified by the spirit of Christ to love and serve others. The church is the people counseling one another through unfathomable grief and loss. The church is people risking lives for their neighbors and opening their homes to strangers. The church is people across the state and nation praying and giving and preparing to offer their best and highest in service to help rebuild lives. The church is alive and vigorous and redeeming. It is grace in every gesture and love in every action. The church is the body of Christ doing the things Jesus did in Jesus’ name and in Jesus’ spirit today.
United Methodists will rebuild in Joplin. Within the first hours, United Methodist congregations were at work locally to help and United Methodist Volunteers were lining up. Within the first day, the Missouri Conference Disaster Response Teams were coordinating with other agencies to help and representatives from the United Methodist Committee on Relief were on the ground in Joplin. Bishops from other conferences have called me to offer support, and several have generously offered large financial gifts to help rebuild. The responses have been humbling.
Dedication services for new facilities. Adding people to the community of faith through baptism and confirmation. Learning of the loss of life and facilities in our own area. Listening to the stories of people called by Christ to make a difference through service and generosity. In the gifts and service of countless people from across the country, the building of the church continues. Our prayers go out to all those who have been most keenly affected by these storms.
Yours in Christ,
P.S. Here are some ways you can help:
1. Contribute the UMCOR Spring Storms. These funds help the communities affected by the Joplin tornado, the Alabama storms, and the flooding of the Mississippi.
2. Contribute to the Joplin Disaster Relief Offering. These funds will be used by the Missouri Conference specifically to help Missouri Conference United Methodist congregations in the Joplin area. Consider receiving a special offering this Sunday for this purpose.
3. Learn about forming a Volunteers in Mission Team for later cleanup and recovery. Please do not self-deploy before coordinating with the Office of Creative Ministries.