By Galen Holley/NEMS Daily Journal
The winds had barely ceased when churches jumped in to help. Two hours after the tornado ravaged Smithville, while the dead and injured were being pulled from the wreckage, members of Christian Chapel Church of Christ fired up the cookers and started feeding.
The response was also fast in Chickasaw County, where more than 500 families suffered the fury of the storms and three people were killed.
The day after the tornado Bethel Baptist Church near Houston opened its facilities to Woodmen of the World who started serving hot meals.
Three months after the storms, churches are still on the vanguard of bringing relief to those who need it.
“They didn’t ask questions. We didn’t have to call them. The churches were doing it even before we asked,” said Linda Griffin, Chickasaw County’s director of emergency management.
If there’s a silver lining around the dark clouds that overshadowed Northeast Mississippi this spring, it’s the fast, effective response of faith communities.
When folks in Okolona point to a damaged property, they speak a family’s name.
“That’s where Hill’s store used to be, and that was the DeMobille home,” said the Rev. Eric Boykin, pastor of Okolona First Baptist Church. Boykin drove south, along a path where “the 3 p.m. tornado,” as locals call it, strafed the countryside. Trees lay twisted and uprooted along County Road 149, bordering the property in front of the remains of the Smith and Ellis family homes. Boykin and his son helped pull the Westbrooks from the wreckage wit their own hands.
“It looks a lot better than it did,” said Boykin. “You can thank Parkway Baptist for a lot of this cleanup.”
During the first days after the storm, when downed trees lay across roofs and driveways, Parkway Baptist in Houston was one of several churches that dispatched members into places like Trebloc, Buena Vista, Houston and Okolona, doing whatever the situation called for.
They weren’t exactly official, but they knew that emergency responders would be overwhelmed and some folks couldn’t wait for help.
“Churches have definitely relieved some of the tremendous pressure. It was unprecedented,” said Okolona Mayor Louise Floyd Cole.
Griffin is the only employee in the emergency management office, and trying to scramble relief workers over 30 miles of damage was a daunting task. When churches fanned out into communities during those first days with food, water and clothing, they made it possible, Griffin said, for victims to stay with their damaged property and begin picking up.
Since the tornado in Smithville, Kevin Crook has been bombarded with calls from churches lining up to help.
“They (churches) have definitely been toting the weight,” said Crook, who serves as volunteer coordinator and vice-chair of the Smithville Long-Term Recovery Committee.
Some churches sent relief, like Heavenly Host Lutheran Church (Missouri Synod), in Cookeville, Tenn., whose ladies sent more than 20 hand-made quilts.
Others dispatched small armies of volunteers.
During the last week of June a group from Mena, Ark, worked long days under the blistering sun restoring the home of a man they hardly knew.
“Healing and helping is the church’s job, anyway. That’s why we do it best,” said the Rev. Victor Rowell, who helped organize the group of 40.
Like several groups before them, including law enforcement and other out of town emergency responders, Rowell and company bunked at Grace Fellowship in Hatley. The church continues to serve as a staging point for volunteers. Among them is Sharon Lincoln, the Lake Charles La., native who each day coordinates the noon feeding at what folks call “the tent,” a canopy under which 10 churches serve food to tornado victims and relief workers in Smithville.
“We get to love on these people, and they need it,” said Lincoln, who’s cajun dishes, like red beans and rice, have become a favorite among locals.
In Chickasaw County the list of faith communities providing relief reads like the “churches” entry in the Yellow Pages. United Methodists, several varieties of Baptists, Pentecostals, Presbyterians and Mennonites are just a few of the Christians that continue to pitch in.
Now that victims’ immediate needs have been met, churches are beginning long-term recovery.
Thirty families in Monroe and Chickasaw counties are receiving help from Adopt a Family, an inter-denominational group that has paired worshiping communities with families for a 12-month journey of recovery.
The nonprofit has synchronized the considerable volunteer resources of 20 churches.
Adopt a Family is part of a trend that Crook has noticed in Smithville, too. “Denominational walls are coming down,” he said. The nonprofit has paired Baptist churches with United Methodists, for example, in walking with families during their recovery. The organization hopes more churches will come onboard as the effort gains momentum.
Many tornado victims rented their homes or didn’t have insurance. Churches are stepping in make sure they aren’t forgotten.
I’ve never seen such an outpouring,” said Sharon Townsend of Okolona, who came under the care of local churches after attending a community meeting at the Buena Vista Fire Department shortly after the storm.
Townsend, an elementary teacher and single mother lost her rental home in the tornado. She and her young son have gotten help from Okolona First Baptist Church as well as from her own Church of God in Christ, and she likened the combined efforts of area faithful to the first communities of Christians in the Book of Acts.
The skies are brightening for Wade Morris and his family too, thanks to a hand up from local Christians.
In March, Morris, 34, was badly burned when a pot of cooking oil spilled on him.
He was still in a daze from surgery and pain medication when his third child came into the world just days before the storm.
An enfeebled Morris was home in Smithville with his family, including the newborn, when the tornado hit.
In less than a month the Morrises will move into a new house. All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Tupelo is making it happen, using the blitz-build, volunteer labor model and guidance of Habitat For Humanity of Northeast Mississippi. All Saints’ is getting help from fellow laborers in the proverbial vineyard of the Lord, like the youth of Tupelo First United Methodist Church.
Among the many Christians who’ve helped the Morrises were members of the Church of Christ from Louisiana.
When they left, they gave Wade’s wife, Jennifer, a Bible. Inside was a check and a mustard seed.
Jennifer plans to place the Bible inside the wall of their new home.
“It most certainly means something to me,” Jennifer said. “So many people have helped us. It symbolizes that God can do anything.”
Contact Daily Journal religion editor Galen Holley at 678-1510.
For more information about Adopt a Family find them on Facebook and Twitter or visit www.adoptafamilyms.com. Also call (662) 401-9121