When hell visited Joplin on May 22, 2011 — appearing from the west as a milewide, rain-wrapped, multiple-vortex tornado — the first church it hit was Saint Paul’s United Methodist Church. In the storm’s wake, the worship center was ripped apart, while the damaged family worship center would later serve as an impromptu triage center.
Roughly 20 minutes later, and exactly 6 miles across town, one of the last churches hit by the storm was Southside Baptist Church. Heavily damaged, the building did its job — all 19 congregation members who sought shelter in its basement survived.
Between those two churches on either end of town, an additional 26 houses of worship were either damaged or completely gutted by the deadliest tornado in more than a half-century.
Buildings that had stood for decades in familiar locations were pulverized, the debris scattered for blocks. Far worse, lives were lost inside these sacred buildings, while dozens more suffered injuries, some of them catastrophic.
“The question that weighs on us at a time like this is: Why? Why our town? Why our home? Why my son or husband or wife or sister or friend? Why?” then-President Barack Obama said during a commencement speech at Joplin High School on May 21, 2012. “We do not have the capacity to answer. … These things are beyond our power to control. But that does not mean we are powerless in the face of adversity. How we respond from the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache, that’s within our control.
“And in all of this, you have lived the words of Scripture: ‘We are troubled on every side, yet not distressed; we are perplexed but not in despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; cast down, but not destroyed.’”
Taking that message to heart, more than 95% of the 28 Joplin churches impacted by the storm ultimately reopened to the public — some as quickly as 16 months after the fact. Some congregations chose to construct new buildings over the footprint of the old; both Saint Paul’s and Southside chose this route. Other churches voted to relocate to new addresses elsewhere in town. Few have fully closed in the years following the storm.
As Joplin prepares to mark the 10th anniversary of the 2011 tornado in May, its churches remain a symbol of hope and perseverance, of resilience and faith.
‘God, lift the storm and save the people’
Charlie Burnett, the 78-year-old pastor of Harmony Heights Baptist Church, 2025 Indiana Ave., had just risen to his feet to launch into his Sunday evening sermon when the tornado sirens outside began to wail. Although he could feel the rising tension in the air from the 53 members seated in front of him, he tried to keep his tone light and fun.
“Folks, let me tell you, you aren’t going to be listening to me,” he told his congregation, “so let’s go to the safest places that we can find in the church.”
Burnett, who is blind, made his way down a hallway from the worship center with his wife, Ann, and another couple. Behind them, the west-facing portion of the church was suddenly flattened, as if stomped by an invisible foot, and Burnett and the others dived into a nearby video room, a windowless space with four concrete walls. Moments later, the roof above their head disintegrated, “like a hand reached down and ripped it off,” he said.
Burnett could do little but squat on the floor and pray out loud: “God, lift the storm and save the people.”
The spoken words were lost in the roar of the storm.
As the worst of the storm moved past them, heading east, Burnett began hearing his congregation members calling out. Because of his blindness, he was rooted to the spot. All he could do was listen — and pray.
“Always in my life, I could fix a problem. I couldn’t fix this one — it was impossible. So I prayed and heard and listened to the people,” he said. “I stood there for a good long time, maybe 45 minutes to an hour. Ann and I stood there together. We were both just praying.”
Eventually, strangers who had been drinking at a bar on Main Street and had made their way east entered the church and began removing debris and helping congregation members escape the shattered building. Outside, cars had been flung about. A church van was found sitting on top of another; every car in the church’s lot had been totaled.
By now, strangers were driving up to assist. Some drove congregation members home to check on their loved ones. Others piled wounded men and women into the backs of their trucks or back seats and made their way to Freeman Health System, seeking treatment.
That’s when Burnett learned the grim news that three of his church members had been killed by the storm: Grace Aquino, 46, of Joplin, who had shielded her 12-year-old son from harm when the room around them collapsed; Ramona M. Bridgeford, 77, of Seneca; and Hallie “Marie” Cook Piquard, 78, of Joplin.
Ten years later, a new church stands at the spot of the old one. The steps of rebuilding had begun almost right away. Plans were drawn up and approved by the congregation, which was worshiping temporarily at Bethel Assembly of God in south Joplin. The new church opened for its first post-tornado service in December 2012.
Burnett said what took place on that late May evening still lingers in their minds and likely will for all time. But those experiences and memories have only strengthened their faith in God, he said.
“There isn’t any question that God didn’t do some protecting of Joplin with angels that day,” he said. “I mean, if you would have looked at our building, there wasn’t anything left of it — just one piece of one wall standing in the gymnasium. You would have thought there wouldn’t have been any way anyone could have survived something like that. God protected a lot of people that day.”
‘A tremendous blessing’
So many survivors have attempted to describe what the EF5 tornado sounded like the moment it engulfed them. Some describe it as an animalistic roar. Others have likened it to the rumble of a passing train. Still others have described it as a throbbing sound, similar to what a turbine engine makes.
Jerald Bass, longtime pastor of Generations Free Will Baptist Church, 2301 Connecticut Ave., can’t associate any specific sound with the monster that disintegrated his two-story church that Sunday evening while he and 23 other members huddled under desks and tables.
“It’s hard to explain,” he said. “Everybody seems to talk about it differently. Some talk about it sounding like being inside a washing machine. Others talk about the roar. I don’t remember anything.”
The interior room they had randomly chosen to move into when the storm sirens outside sounded was a wise choice, it would turn out. Everything around them — the four walls, the roof — remained intact, despite the 200 mph winds swirling outside. Other parts of the church weren’t as lucky, he said. The upstairs portion of the building was gone. The sanctuary was gone. The back part of the church was nothing but rubble.
Only months later would Bass learn why their tiny portion of the church survived the storm’s fury. A longtime church member told him that when the original building was being constructed during the mid-1960s, congregation members helped defer costs by clearing away the land for the builders. Because of the reasonable construction price quoted to them, some of them guessed that corners were being cut and that substandard materials were being used for the foundation and walls.
“So (church members) would literally take the cut blocks and put them down inside the walls, in case (the builders) weren’t using high-grade concrete or cinder blocks,” Bass said. “You can probably guess which walls didn’t get torn down by the storm — it was the walls around the room we were all in. God knew in advance that we would need to reinforce that area. … It was the only area of the church that was done that way. We were blessed to have found the one place still left standing there. God was looking out for us that day.”
Despite the devastation, all church members, who had gathered together inside the church an hour early for choir practice, had survived without serious injuries. In early 2013, the first service was held inside their new $1.45 million, 11,000-square-foot church, built on the spot of the old one. Bass called that moment “a tremendous blessing.”
“We’re back on the right track now. I think we’re a healthy church; we’ve been healthier now than we have been in years, spiritually,” he said. “We have a really good foundation.”
A symbol of hope
The churches and congregations that were unharmed by the storm certainly didn’t sit in a vacuum in the days and months that followed.
College Heights Christian Church, 4311 Newman Road, became one of the key distribution points as supplies poured in from all points of the compass. Joplin Family Worship Center, 5290 E. Seventh St., became a donation center geared toward helping tornado victims. And the Royal Heights United Methodist Church, 1612 Euclid Ave., was the distribution point for the generosity of more than 75 churches, ranging from Pennsylvania to Texas, that flooded the community with aid.
Joplin churches and many in surrounding communities opened their doors to displaced congregations so they could still stay and pray together as they went about finalizing and breaking ground on new church buildings.
And then there is the cross. A tall iron cross is one of the few things that survived after the storm ripped apart St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the rectory, school and more as it passed along 26th Street.
The cross that stood in front of the church became an inspirational symbol for thousands of Joplin residents, and its survival made national and even international headlines. Ten years later, it’s taken on an even greater meaning for those who survived the storm, as well as for individuals and families who have moved to Joplin since 2011.
“The cross made me emotional for many years,” said Stephanie Elbert, who has served as parish secretary of St. Mary’s for 21 years. “But now, there is just a calm about it.”
Thanks to a multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign, along with insurance proceeds and donations, construction began on the new St. Mary’s church and school at their present location, 32nd Street and Central City Road. The first Mass inside the new church took place on Dec. 17, 2014, with the Rev. Justin Monaghan, who survived the tornado by climbing into a bathtub inside the rectory.
Monaghan died in 2020 at the age of 79; now, the Rev. Joe Weidenbenner leads the parish.
“I can tell that it’s taken the people here time to process all that’s happened,” he said. He even sees this with members of his own congregation, he said, each time a storm siren is activated.
A few weeks after the storm struck Joplin, Weidenbenner drove to Joplin from West Plains, where he was living at the time, to see the destruction with his own eyes. He got to Range Line Road and, out of respect for those who were cleaning up the rubble, he turned around and left.
Now, he’s showing that same respect as he quietly navigates his flock through the post-tornado years and is busy preparing for the 10th anniversary on May 22, 2021.
One of the moments of that anniversary will take place at the site of the old St. Mary’s church, where the iron cross still stands today. The church sold a majority of the land to The Empire District Electric Co., now Liberty, after the tornado, but the cross remains as a symbol of hope for Joplin residents.
Here in 2021, Weidenbenner wants to forever memorialize the cross and make it a point of pride for all of Joplin’s places of faith.
“We’ll be unveiling new landscaping around the cross … so it will become a permanent fixture” in Joplin, he said. “We want to make it a place where people can stop and spend a little time out there.”