It was the worst summer of my life.
On May 22, 2011, our lives came to a screeching halt. It was a Sunday evening, and I was at a party with my church youth group. It was a cloudy evening, and rain was in the forecast. We had heard about a tornado watch, but we were used to those. Growing up in Joplin, Missouri means you get used to the sound of tornado sirens. By the time I was in high school, I’d seen multiple tornados with my own eyes. They are terrifyingly beautiful.
So, when the warnings came on and the sirens went off that Sunday evening, I didn’t think much of it. The storm blew over and I left the party to go meet up with the rest of my family. You can imagine my shock as I drove back into town and found that my cozy little hometown had turned into a war zone.
At 5:41pm, a mile-wide EF5 tornado tore through my hometown, leaving a path of carnage in its wake that would change our lives forever. It was the worst summer of my life.
It was one of the deadliest tornadoes in history. In the end, 161 people would lose their lives. At least 1,150 people were injured. Countless thousands would lose their homes, their businesses, their livelihoods. It was the costliest tornado in US history, with an insurance payout of $2.8 billion.
But the cost to the people of Joplin was much greater. We all lost friends. But it seemed like we didn’t have time to grieve, because there was so much work to do. In the immediate aftermath of the storm, we combed through the wreckage late at night, looking for people who were unaccounted for. The night after the tornado, an even bigger rainstorm came with more tornado sirens. I vividly remember over 30 of our friends and family huddling in my parents’ basement, terrified that another tornado was on the way.
After the fear and the shock wore off, then came long weeks of back-breaking labor. Every day, we would load up our chainsaws and as many bags and boxes as we could find, and we’d set off into the carnage for another day of work. We’d go to the wreckage of a friend’s house and help them search for lost belongings, gathering what little we could salvage. Most of it we never found. We spent that summer working and grieving alongside our friends who had lost their homes or their loved ones. In many ways, it was the worst summer of my life.
It was the best summer of my life.
Somehow, in the midst of all of that pain and loss, we met God in the wreckage. As the storm was raging that Sunday evening, my mom (the director of our church’s children’s choir) was leading a caravan of vehicles filled with kids from the church to find shelter from the storm. They could barely see where they were going because of all of the wind and rain. Suddenly, a tree fell across the road right in front of them, causing the first two vehicles of the caravan to collide. With nowhere else to turn, the whole children’s choir knocked on the door of the nearest house and took shelter in their basement. After the storm passed, we realized how God had protected them. Just a few hundred feet ahead of where that tree fell was where the first casualties of the tornado occurred. They had been driving right into the storm and didn’t even know it because of the rain. I believe that God used that tree to spare the lives of my family and all of the other people with them. I could tell countless stories like that. We all experienced little moments of divine providence testifying to God’s sovereignty and faithfulness even amidst the chaos of the storm.
I have never seen the church more alive than that summer after the tornado. It seemed like everyone put aside the petty differences that often divide us and remembered what was really important. We spent the whole summer working side-by-side with people from all over the country who had heard about the disaster and decided to just show up and help out. People weren’t worried about music styles or dress codes or denominational differences. Instead, churches from all over the city banded together to help provide food, shelter, and supplies for those in need.
When you surveyed the horrific damage caused by the tornado, there was no pretending that everything was okay. It was blatantly obvious that we are living in a fallen world. So all over the town, people were flocking to the nearest steeple in search of answers to life’s deepest questions. The message of Jesus was spreading rapidly, bringing light to the darkness and hope to the destruction.
It was the best summer of my life. Lots of wonderful things happened that summer. When President Obama came to Joplin the week after the tornado, my little brother got to meet him and they spent some time talking about baseball. My other little brother was captured in an iconic photograph and got his face plastered all over the national news. As for me, I didn’t get 5 minutes of fame from the storm, but I got something even better.
Our house wasn’t damaged by the storm, so we were able to welcome lots of people into our home that summer who needed a place to stay. In the days following the storm, we had around 30 people staying in our house. Needless to say, I got kicked out of my bed and spent a lot of time sleeping on the floor for the next few weeks. As the days went by, most people managed to find a place to stay that was more permanent. One family, however, stuck around: The Ratliffs.
The Ratliffs are a crazy family. They have 9 kids. Have you ever seen Cheaper by the Dozen? That family looks tame compared to the Ratliffs. We became friends with the Ratliffs through youth sports and eventually some church connections. We liked them. They were our friends, but we were about to get a whole lot closer. When the Ratliffs’ house was damaged in the tornado, they moved in to live with us for the next 4 months. Keep in mind, I am the oldest of 6 kids. If you’re doing the math, that means there are 4 adults and 15 kids living under one roof. Take a look at this picture. I’m the oldest one on the top step (with the shaggy hair). It was a very loud summer.
The best summer of my life. I’m not going to say that sharing our home with the Ratliffs for 4 months was easy, especially with everything else going on around us. But it was good. To this day, we are still close friends with the Ratliffs. One of the Ratliff boys became like a brother to me. He was the first person I ever discipled and baptized. To this day when I go back to my parents’ house to visit, it’s not uncommon for a few Ratliff kids to come barging in the front door to say hi or see if there are any snacks in the pantry. When the Ratliffs came into our home that summer, they were friends. When they left, they were family. All because of a tornado, and because my parents had the courage to open their home.
It was the worst summer of my life. But it was also the best summer of my life. That summer, I saw the church at its best, impacting homes by opening ours.