This is the meditation Allen Weirick preached on Sunday, the 29th of July at First Pres. in Cartersville
We tend to think of nature as a wonderfully beautiful gift of God, and in it we see the glory of God’s creation or a place to commune with God. Many of our favorite hymns or choir anthems deal with one or more of these themes: For the Beauty of the Earth, The Heavens Are Telling the Glory of God, This is My Father’s World, and Morning Has Broken, to name just a few. God’s creation does indeed contain incredible beauty and scenes which foster grateful solitude and reflection. But what happens when nature seems to turn against us, as on that day in April last year when tornados ripped through the American south and mid-west with a destructive force that is beyond imagining? When I helped with tornado clean-up efforts here in Bartow County last year I was amazed at the destruction I saw, but as bad as it was it could not compare with the more wide-spread destruction that Tuscaloosa experienced. Having seen that in person, I cannot imagine what Joplin, Missouri experienced with its even larger and more powerful storm.
Numbers don’t give the whole picture, but they do give us an idea of how bad it was:
The guide on our tour of the tornado area told us that enough debris was collected to fill the University of Alabama football stadium – an immense structure that holds over 100,000 spectators – seven times. Over 1200 residential structures were destroyed and another 1600+ were severely damaged, as about 12% of the city of Tuscaloosa was destroyed. The human toll was huge, with 52 people killed by the storm and well over 1000 injured. Thousands of people were temporarily or permanently homeless, thousands of others became unemployed as their workplaces were destroyed, and pretty much everyone in the city was directly or indirectly affected by the storm.
So what happens to people’s faith when faced by such enormity? It is not surprising that some people lost their faith, and some gave up on their hometown, leaving, never to return. Others found strength in their faith and did not falter. By being there to help we were able to increase their hope and their confidence that things would work out for them. I am confident that our presence there and the work we did – along with that of the thousands of other volunteers, literally from around the country – provided part of the answers to many, many prayers by the people of Tuscaloosa.
The people who will be living in the houses we worked on are good examples. The man at the main site was handicapped, but he sat there in the immense heat to be connected with the effort emotionally. His faith was remarkable. I don’t remember his exact words, but he said something to the effect that he may be weak physically, but he was powerful in prayer, and we witnessed several examples of his powerful prayers.
The owner of the site where I spent most of my time was a disabled veteran of the first Gulf War, and his pelvis was crushed when his house collapsed on him and dragged him several yards. He clearly is not capable of putting in the sweat equity hours that Habitat for Humanity usually requires of people who get their houses, so we unfortunately did not get to meet him. Without Habitat for Humanity and the various groups of volunteers who rebuilt his house he would never have been able to rebuild on his own. His new house, which was on track to be turned over to him this past week, was built on the site of his old one, just better and much more secure. (All Habitat houses built in Tuscaloosa after the storm are built with a safe room in them.)
One of the women of our group spoke with a young man from the university who volunteered on his own at the build site, and he said he was the only one he knew of who was doing that, and added that he was disappointed that most local people seem to think only of themselves, and don’t care enough about others to help out. He didn’t see the big picture, though, and didn’t realize that many people were doing a lot – like the church where we stayed, which had made a mission – which they carried out very well, I might add – of providing space and support for groups to come to help out. They may not have been out on the sites helping to build, but they were making it possible for literally hundreds of outsiders to do more work than their own members ever could have. There are many other examples of churches, other organizations, and individuals who are helping in numerous ways with the rebuilding.
You know when you sign up for a mission trip that you are going to be surrounded by special people; they are pre-selected to include only people who care, because to put it bluntly: jerks don’t go on mission trips. You have people who volunteer to give up their time – in many cases, their valuable vacation time – to work hard to help people who are less fortunate than they are. Some I had known for years and have worked with on the Session like Nanette and Mary, or with other organizations, like Lori, whom I know more from her work with the Friends of the Cartersville Library. Some I barely knew, like the teenagers from our church, while others I met for the first time on the trip, like Xavier, a wonderful young man from Rockmart whom you should get to know if you haven’t already had the pleasure. It’s a whole lot easier to enjoy work when you are sharing it with likable people, and you want to make sure you do your part and don’t let the group down. I quickly learned that I am not capable of keeping up with Paul, whom I think of as the energizer rabbit because he just keeps on going and going, all the time with a great attitude and an ability to explain things and help out without ever talking down to us more-or-less beginners. Seeing these people in action is a very special feeling, and it makes me proud to have been a part of their team. I have always been impressed with the giving spirit of our church, and this mission experience has only strengthened that feeling. As others have said before, when you return from a mission trip, you are strengthened in faith, more connected with your church, and very tired, but it is a good tired, a very good tired.