Monday, May 30, 2011

Joplin, Missouri



by Saint Mark (bio)


I don't know about you, but I have never been a witness to devastation. I've never been to a war torn zone or been to the aftermath of a destructive natural or man-made disaster. Yes, I've seen images reproduced on screens whether computer, television or cell phone, but the four corners of a screen can never give a 360 degree perspective of an eyewitness experience. I had never seen true devastation until yesterday.

Having graduated last Sunday, my family and I started our trek across country. We had heard the horrible news that tornados had reaked havoc in Joplin, Missouri. Because my mother-in-law is from Joplin, Missouri, we decided to visit Joplin and "mourn with those who mourn."

It was overwhelming to the senses. The whole town was not destroyed. A six-mile swath of it was, however. It's eerie to drive along and see homes, stores and schools that look like any other Midwestern town and then suddenly you enter a scene from a WWII movie. My wife and I watched The Pianist recently and when Adrian Brodie jumps over the hospital wall and sees the wasteland that was once his city, it looked scarily similar to Joplin. This was not a movie set or CGI-created scene; this was reality and it made me want to vomit from the sheer awesomeness of it. Not awesomeness in the Jack Black Kung Fu Panda way. Awesomeness in the only-God-and-nature-could-do-this manner.

What was stunning was that not everything was destroyed. Some walls had stayed erect despite the 150-mile plus winds that tore at the community. Some power lines and poles somehow defied the odds and stood as silent sentinels impassionately standing guard as we drove down the road that runs through the middle of the destruction. Miraculously, at the LDS church that was destroyed, tithing slips and envelopes stayed in the holder outside a bishop's office. They were fanned out but remained in the holder, as if waiting to be used, even though the hallways, doors, roof and most of everything else had been blown to bits. I really had no idea what "blown to bits" meant until I saw a family's possessions and property literally blown and twisted by such powerful winds that only pieces and bits of what was a wedding dress, a tricycle and a two-bedroom home were strewn around for acres. There were things I saw that I could not decipher their origin. Devastation was just that: devastating. And I was just a tourist. Yes, my wife's deceased grandfather's house, the church her family attends, and my mother-in-law's places of youth were destroyed but none of the destruction directly affected any of my property or people. I could only imagine how heartbroken those who were impacted directly by the tornados felt.

I heard some of their stories firsthand: a family of five huddled in a closet who prayed as they awaited the tornado to arrive, who clung to each other as roof, walls, and home were carried away and who thanked God as they walked away with a few scratches and some missing shoes; brothers and nephews who ran for miles across town to get to family and friends because the streets were so covered in debris that by-foot was the only possible means of transportation; church leaders who relied on the spiritual gifts of discernment and revelation to know how to proceed, to find a "command center," and to give appropriate comfort to those who had been afflicted.

As I walked through the devastated neighborhoods, as I listened to the stories of the victims, and as I joined their combined congregation gatherings, I became a witness of God's hand and God's people. "Why did this happen?" is a natural and important question that was raised not a few times from the lips of these people. The scriptures teach that things do happen for a reason. In the Book of Mormon, the Savior speaks of how he was the Destroyer: "Behold, the great city of Zarahemla have I burned with fire, and the inhabitants thereof. And behold, that great city Moroni have I caused to be sunk in the depths of the sea, and the inhabitants thereof to be drowned." See 3 Nephi 9:1-15 for a more full description. Yet, Elder Dallin H. Oaks is quoted as saying, "The Lord doesn't create many of these disasters, but he does know how to use them." So, what's the answer? Why did this devastation happen here in Joplin? Or in Japan? Or in Haiti? Or....

Maybe the "why" question isn't as important as the "what do we learn from this" question. Seeing the devastation humbles me, makes me want to repent more fully, and reach out to those who are less fortunate. We know this is the latter-days and there will continue to be series of unfortunate events. Hopefully, I will respond as bravely and righteously as these people in Joplin have when I am more than just a passing witness.

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