Faith after twisters strike

Watching East Coast-dominated media coverage from middle America was pretty interesting this week. While Washington was obsessed over who needs to apologize for Rush Limbaugh’s remarks and who said what over Andrew Briebart’s death, those of us in the Midwest watched different kinds of disasters unfold this week. From the Ohio school shooting earlier this week to towns flattened by tornadoes, you can imagine how pastors might be adjusting their notes for weekend sermons on tragedy.

A string of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms plowed through the Midwest and the South on Friday, leaving more than 35 people dead, hundreds injured and buildings destroyed. A baby was found in a field, but the rest of her family was killed by the tornado. To get a sense of the damage done, you might take a minute to look at some stunning photos compiled by the Boston Globe‘s Big Picture blog, which leads off with a photo of a destroyed Catholic church in Illinois. Those without cameras still painted a picture of the wide-spread devastation from the storms. I love the color one reporter uses to describe a damaged church.

Most of the stained-glass windows survived. So did the steeple, although the cross on top was bent crooked by the wind. Priest had not checked on the bell. He was afraid it might come down on his head. But he unhooked the rope from the wall and pulled, gingerly at first.

It clanged. He pulled harder. It clanged louder. He pulled and pulled.

“That’s a sign we’re going to be here,” he said.

Other outlets like CNN captured some of the faith angles in recovery efforts.

Snow began to fall at sunrise on Sunday as Sam Kelly, 10, tended a small fire outside Henryville Community Church in the shadow of Henryville High School. Pallets of bottled water piled up outside the church’s recreation center. The church suffered virtually no damage from Friday’s violent storms. The school next door is in ruins.

Across the road, the neighborhood is a tangled mess of 2x4s, metal siding, and the remains of family homes.

Henryville Community Presbyterian Church, a half mile up the road, lost its roof and stained-glass windows, and pews were upended across the sanctuary.

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church has become a staging ground for rescue workers and media briefings.

“The hand of God was on us. We didn’t get any damage,” said Shawn Kelly, youth pastor at Henryville Community Church.

Other reporters could have used a little more detail. A piece from the Courier & Press quotes someone who decided not to leave their house to seek shelter as saying “We’re very grounded in our religion, so we felt we were OK.” Sorry, what religion is that? Similarly, a report from the Huntsville Times says that a resident “leaned on her faith” as the storm approached. It takes about two seconds to ask what faith she is describing.

In the recovery process, it’s probably natural for survivors to hunker down and pick up the pieces on their own. But those involved in faith communities might find friends who are especially generous with time, money and other resources. A USA Today story illustrates what’s happening on the ground in Henryville, Indiana.

Inside St. Francis during Sunday Mass, the only light came from candles on the altar and pale sunlight coming through stained glass windows. There was no power and no heat.
The congregation of about 150 people compared notes about damage to their homes, the safety of their families.
Margaret Short, 62, said it was important to pray together “because we’re a small community and this is our church and we have so much to be thankful for.”
Tears fell as she spoke of her own family’s scary moments Friday — her daughter took shelter in a closet — and the generosity of her neighbors and church family.
Gesturing at the pile of donated items, she said, “It’s not remarkable. This is normal in our community.”

The final quote in that section is, in some ways, the challenge for reporters. Generosity from a faith community is, in one sense, “not remarkable.” If members of churches were not reaching out to one another, that would be more unusual. So in the coming days, it could be difficult for reporters to capture something particularly unusual about faith communities helping each other. The key, though, is taking the time to show the underlying motivations for why people help one another in these times of need.

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  • Julia

    Nice USA Today story, but I don’t think the folks were discussing their troubles with each other during Mass.

    Maybe the reporter didn’t mean to convey that, but he should have paid attention to the timeline. He surely meant they were conversing after Mass.

  • Julia

    The local NBC station broadcast from that very small town in Southern Illinois featured in the Globe where only the front wall with the doors and the altarpiece remain standing. Very good interviews with the locals about what that church meant to themselves, their children and their great-grandparents who had built it. One woman is allowed to share at her own pace, her feelings about how the people in town had been baptized, confirmed, married and even buried at and from that church.

    The reporter really captured the feelings of the locals without being intrusive or maudlin. He also movingly conveyed the significance to the people of the tornado sparing the hand-carved Italian altar piece their ancestors had bought for the church in the late 1800s.

  • Mike

    If you can enjoy reading a piece about a disaster, John Hoeffel’s LA Times article is excellent. From depicting the priest ringing the bell to the detailed descriptions about the town, it’s a great example of the adage: Show, don’t tell.

    And for those stories quoting individuals who credited their religion for their survival, I wish I would someday read an article in which the reporter asked, “Which religion? How has that sustained you? What has that religion taught you that gives you such strength?” Frankly, I believe the priest ringing the bell says more about this than anything.

  • Dave

    I’ve seen clips on network and local TV news of people talking about praying as a tornado passed over them. No inquiry into what tradition embedded their prayers.

    Alas, as you doubtless know, the baby found in the field later died.

  • MikeD

    This NYT article started out promising but could not sustain the promise of the headline as it seemed to keep leaving the church and discussing the government’s response to the disasters. (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/05/us/amid-tornado-cleanup-worship-in-indiana-town.html?ref=us)
    I really would have like to have seen a fuller interview with the subject of this quote:

    Emily Horine, 18, a senior at the local school, was clutching her rosary when the storm hit on Friday. She was hunkered down in a music room closet. “Honestly, I thought I was going to die,” she said. “My faith is what keeps me going every day and I could have gotten through that without it.”

  • sari

    The final quote in that section is, in some ways, the challenge for reporters. Generosity from a faith community is, in one sense, “not remarkable.” If members of churches were not reaching out to one another, that would be more unusual. So in the coming days, it could be difficult for reporters to capture something particularly unusual about faith communities helping each other. The key, though, is taking the time to show the underlying motivations for why people help one another in these times of need.

    Faith communities may also take credit for the work of non-members and non-believers who are part of the larger community but who lack the necessary infrastructure. Last year’s tornadoes come to mind, when local atheist and free-thinker organizations instructed their followers to volunteer with the churches rather than take the time to set up new charities. Many Jewish groups did the same. It may be more correctly stated that basic decency motivates community to take care of its own rather than any given set of beliefs.

  • Maureen

    Speaking as someone from Ohio, next door to Indiana — “community” was almost certainly referring to their little town. She would have said “parish” if she meant the parish. Only liturgists and people who run workshops talk about a “faith community.”

    (shaking head) You out-of-towners sure talk funny.


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