The faith and resiliency of Oklahomans

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Just before noon Monday, my two younger children and I drove along Interstate 35 through Moore, Okla., under a bright sky. It’s impossible to comprehend the grisly scene along that same path now.

Ironically, I had spent the weekend in Texas reporting on tornado relief efforts in the Lone Star State. That meant we missed the first round of tornadoes in my home state of Oklahoma on Sunday. But with more severe storms predicted the next afternoon, we left my parents’ house near Fort Worth first thing Monday morning, hoping to make it home to Oklahoma City — about 200 miles north — before the next batch of bad weather.

We missed the disaster south of Oklahoma City by three hours and 20 miles.

I work on the north side of the city. About the same time as the twister ravaged suburban Moore, tornado sirens sounded outside my office window. Hail and rain soaked my shirt as I rushed to take cover in a nearby auditorium. But this part of the city escaped with no major problems. Our fellow Oklahomans were not so fortunate.

As television images revealed the severity of the destruction — and loss of human life — a journalist friend let me know a major national news organization was looking for freelancers.

“You game?” my friend asked in an e-mail.

“I don’t have it in me,” I wrote back. “Sorry.”

“Me neither,” my friend replied.

The gigantic headline on today’s front page of The Oklahoman newspaper screamed:

WORSE THAN MAY 3RD

For Oklahomans, May 3 — as in May 3, 1999 — needs no explanation.

Forty-four people, including three children, died and hundreds more were injured as dozens of tornadoes swept across the state that tragic day 14 years ago. That night, I ignored a tornado warning and raced to a south Oklahoma City hospital to interview victims. I was younger and stupider and had more journalistic adrenaline back then.

I also covered the April 19, 1995, bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building, which claimed 168 lives.

But after Oklahoma’s latest tragedy, I have no desire to grab my reporter’s notepad and start interviewing victims.

I’m just numb.

In recent years, I’ve reported from the scenes of disasters such as Hurricane Katrina, the Joplin, Mo., tornado and, most recently, the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas.

But as a friend from New Orleans noted in a Facebook message to me, “It is so close to your home. It makes it different than going ‘out there’ listening to others’ stories. When it is in your own backyard, it changes the face of it — so much. I know you have been through it before, but it never gets easier.”

If anything, it gets harder.

The only thing that makes it easier is that the nation — once again — is about to see what makes Oklahoma and its people so special.

My Twitter feed has been a blur of links to news stories and images telling the mostly heartbreaking — but occasionally inspirational — story of the Moore tornado.

Expect the faith and resiliency of Oklahomans to figure heavily in the coverage of this disaster.

From a Reuters story:

On Tuesday morning, a helicopter was circling overhead and thunder rumbled from a new storm as 35-year-old Moore resident Juan Dills and his family rummaged through the remains of what was once his mother’s home. The foundation was laid bare, the roof ripped away and only one wall was still standing. They found a few family photo albums, but little else.

“We are still in shock,” he said. “But we will come through. We’re from Oklahoma.”

Is there a holy ghost in the last part of the victim’s quote? Maybe. Maybe not. But I don’t think it’s a stretch to suggest there might be.

CNN referenced the faith of a top Oklahoma official but didn’t elaborate on it:

Tuesday morning, Lt. Gov. Todd Lamb spoke to CNN affiliate KOKI from a Dick’s Sporting Goods parking lot.

“I’m not a pessimist and I have a lot of faith and a lot of hope, but just with the enormity and severity of this storm…” he trailed off.

God made two appearances in the Wall Street Journal’s main tornado story.

First here:

“Everything is just devastated,” said Darren Hacker of Moore. “It’s like a bomb dropped on Moore. People are dying here, they are buried. I just praise God my daughter is safe.”

Then here:

Mona Penn knew as she rushed to OU Medical Center in Oklahoma City late Monday that the storm had killed her daughter-in-law, Shannon Quick, and left her 8-year-old grandson injured and in surgery.

Ms. Penn’s son, Michael Quick, a Moore resident, had called to tell her about Ms. Quick’s death and the injury to his son, Jackson. Mr. Quick’s other son, 13-year-old Tanner, was uninjured. Ms. Penn said the family probably took shelter in their home’s restroom.

“If God’s willing to take you, he’s going to take you,” Ms. Penn, 59, said in the parking lot outside of the emergency room, clutching a drink in a Styrofoam cup as tears spilled down her cheeks. “But I don’t want to lose two of them.”

My friend Carla Hinton, religion editor for The Oklahoman, reported on Baptist relief efforts and witnessed a joyful family reunion in the parking lot of the First Baptist Church of Moore.

For insightful, compassionate updates on the Moore tornado recovery effort, be sure to follow my friend Steve Lackmeyer, longtime Oklahoman reporter and a fellow Oklahoma Christian University alumnus, on Twitter.

Admittedly, I’ve found it difficult to follow all the news coverage about the Moore tornado. If you notice any particularly exceptional or especially egregious coverage of the religion angle, please share the link in the comments section.

And if you haven’t already, watch the video at the top of this post:

“The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.”

About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • Ann Rodgers

    My paper has a nearly-banner A-1 headline ‘Send your prayers this way.’ I had nothing to do with it, by the way. https://skydrive.live.com/?cid=29645d339943f6e3&id=29645D339943F6E3%21155&sff=1&authkey=!ALMxXtlFvLq8hwo

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Nice headline! And Oklahoma certainly can use the prayers.

  • RoamingChile

    You have to finish the quote: “The LORD giveth and the LORD taketh away. Blessed be the name of the LORD.” Hard and not all understand. Maranatha!

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Actually, I think the guy’s quote was, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away,” followed by, “Wow.” :-)

  • MollieZHemingway

    Wow. What a beautiful post, Bobby. I have a few friends in Oklahoma and am so thankful that they emerged alive. I’m in awe of the local reporters who have covered it so well.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thank you, Mollie!

  • Jerry

    It’s interesting that Wolf Blitzer on CNN asked a survivor if she thanked the Lord for saving her. She answered that she’s an atheist. It pays to avoid assumptions http://freebeacon.com/wolf-blitzer-asks-tornado-survivor-if-she-thanked-the-lord-tells-him-shes-an-atheist/

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Yes, it pays to avoid assumptions, but I wouldn’t be too hard on Wolf. He asked a question. The woman answered it. That’s journalism.

      • ahermit

        He did more than ask a question; he presumed to know what her answer should be…

  • Ellen

    In nearly every interview of Oklahoma residents I’ve seen, they’ve mentioned their faith, their trust in God, and their thanks to Him for his protection. It’s very heartening to see such open faith.

    • http://getreligion.org/ Bobby Ross Jr.

      Thanks for your comment, Ellen.

  • teacon7

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