Ordinary encounters, extraordinary power

A monthly column by the General Assembly Stated Clerk

August 8, 2011

Gradye Parsons, sitting at a table with men talking.

Gradye Parsons (left) talks with Joplin tornado survivor Gary Nelson (center) and PDA’s John Robinson (right). —Photo by Jerry Van Marter

STORM LAKE, Iowa

Life after disasters is full of stories of tragedy and miraculous survival.

Recently, I visited Joplin, Missouri, which was devastated by a class E-5 tornado in May. It was the deadliest tornado since 1950, killing over 155 people and destroying around 7,000 homes. The tornado tore a path three-fourths of a mile wide and ten miles long through town.

It is difficult to see what force the church has against the magnitude of such destruction. Yet, what impressed me in Joplin is the extraordinary power of the ordinary life of the church.

I sat in a room in a church basement as I listened to people share their stories and their hopes. Nearby was a pair of Mr. Coffee machines. I could not help but think how many church suppers, session meetings, Presbyterian Women gatherings, and more had been supplied with caffeine from those two coffee makers.

It is through such ordinary encounters that community is built, which, in turn, creates the life of the church that rises from the ashes and responds.

I witnessed church groups on mission trips respond as they removed debris and separated material for the landfill in 104-degree weather. Participants ranged in age from teenagers to older teens in their 80s. At the end of the day, they will take turns for showers, eat pre-fab lasagna, and go to sleep on air mattresses. They will rise the next day and do it again.

As of mid-July, a total of 335,795 volunteer hours had been given in Joplin. This is being repeated in other disaster areas in Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and more. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) factors these volunteer hours into matching grants at a rate of $16 an hour, which adds up to over $5,000,000 in labor.

The ordinary life of the church is more than a match for the extraordinary disasters that can happen to us. That ordinary life is built on the call we receive from the Spirit to follow Jesus Christ. That call puts us in communities of very ordinary people who together, with God’s help, do extraordinary things.

Assist in the recovery effort.

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