Shelter From the Storm

Shelter From the Storm May 20, 2024

A radar map showing the formation of an EF4 tornado over Barnsdall, Oklahoma, moving towards Bartlesville, OK.
When a storm hit the community of Bartlesville, Oklahoma head on, people filled with the love of Jesus responded. A radar map showing the formation of an EF4 tornado over Barnsdall, Oklahoma, moving towards Bartlesville. Original image © KOAM-TV via Facebook.

To see the love of God tangibly in the unselfish actions and motives of churches is undoubtedly something marvelous.

Previously, I have lamented in this column how many institutional churches focus their resources first on their own interests before the needs of their community. Unfortunately, this is the prolific reality myself and others have observed first hand too often in virtually every area of the United States and in every Christian denomination.

But there are exceptions. And it is too easy to focus on the churches obsessed with propagating their institutional needs over the cause of Christ. The stories of those who do not fit this mold deserve to be told even more.

When we lift up even one member of the body of Christ, we are exalting Jesus himself.

It is beautiful when Christ-followers heroically serve others, even in the midst of a crisis. And when even literal storms come, the perseverance of this loving service can produce faith within a world that has been darkened by much more than just a lack of electricity.

Night Walker

The typically blustery northeastern Oklahoma air was thick and humid as afternoon turned into evening Monday, May 6th, 2024, making it feel downright muggy by supper time. Meanwhile, cooler air hovered high above like a giant melting ice pack crowning the sky. As the cold air mixed with the simmering heat below, a storm began visibly brewing on radar screens and across the spring skies of the South-Central United States.

The EF4 tornado tore from Barnsdall to Bartlesville killing two and injuring dozens. NEXRAD radar image of the tornado captured May 6, 2024. Original image by WeatherWriter via Wikimedia Commons. PD US NOAA NWS.

By 7:30 pm, meteorologists observed strong winds at different heights twisting the rising warm air like a corkscrew, creating what is known as a supercell. Although the sun had not yet set, the horizon was already black when this exceptionally powerful thunderstorm formed near a small town about 45 minutes north of Tulsa named Hominy, which means “night walker” in Osage. Like a lone warrior, the storm slowly crept northeast through the darkness.

Within another hour, the collision of spinning warm and cool air had created a monstrous updraft that sucked at the earth like a vacuum. As the storm intensified, meteorologists discerned a classic “hook echo” signature on radar—a telltale sign that the dangerous storm could soon spawn a tornado. Then, from the midst of the swirling clouds, a funnel reached down like an angry finger, churning furiously against the earth.

The path the tornado gouged into the earth is large enough to be observed from 500 miles away in space. The European Space Agency Sentinel-2 satellite shows the damage swath from the Barnsdall, OK EF-4 tornado from May 6 (dark line running from lower-left to upper-right). Image by NWS Tulsa via X.

It was 9:12 pm when the tornado touched down, carving a wide path of destruction that uprooted trees and obliterated metal power poles on its way to Barnsdall, a city populated by 1,000 people who had just endured another tornado five weeks earlier on April 1. Winds estimated at up to 180 miles per hour demolished homes and businesses, destroyed the entire town water system, killed two people, and injured dozens. An Osage county official described the damage as “total destruction.”

Tearing across the country from southeast Barnsdall, the EF4 tornado unleashed its wrath upon Bartlesville in what emergency management called “a direct hit.” Cars and trucks were tossed, rolled, and flipped like toys, trees snapped like toothpicks, and several homes were obliterated into splinters and piles of rubble as the deadly tornado surged east of town before finally dissipating when it was engulfed by the sweeping tail of a squall line.

The tornado was on the ground for fifty-five minutes, moved a total of forty miles, and in places left a wake of damage 1,700 yards wide. The path the tornado gouged into the earth is large enough to be observed from 500 miles away in space.

Riders on the Storm

By the time the National Weather Service in Tulsa, Oklahoma issued a Tornado Warning for Bartlesville at 9:37 pm, Worship and Communications Pastor Jason Pierce along with other staff members and their families had already opened Bartlesville First Church of the Nazarene because they have a designated tornado shelter.

The lethal Barnsdall-Bartlesville EF4 tornado, May 6, 2024. Original photo by Zach Rowell, courtesy Alan Hancock via Facebook. All rights reserved.

But before the storm hit, Rev. Pierce went back out to search for Cody (not his real name), a homeless person Rev. Pierce was aware needed a place to sleep for a couple of nights. For the past several days, Rev. Pierce had brought food and coffee to an encampment Cody had made. Rev. Pierce found Cody’s belongings, but no Cody.

Within ten minutes after the tornado passed nearby, Rev. Pierce, his family, and other church staff and volunteers ventured outside to see how they could help others. Downed power lines had created a widespread power outage, so the aftermath of the storm was obscured by total darkness.

In the parking lot of the church, a man was removing a large piece of sheet metal that had flown underneath his car. People in several other vehicles had pulled beneath areas of the church roof where there was any overhang. Fortunately, there were no injuries on the church campus.

“We did not grasp the full extent of what had happened on Monday evening,” said Rev. Pierce. He said he prayed for much of the night in total darkness. “The power was out in most of Bartlesville, and the city of Barnsdall, to the south of us, was no longer there.”

A Light in the Darkness

Just a little over a mile north from the Bartlesville First Church of the Nazarene, the destruction northeast of Tuxedo Boulevard was more pronounced. Emergency crews were still in the process of putting out tree fires, stopping gas leaks, and moving debris from major roadways.

Debris and damage from powerful storms are seen, Tuesday, May 7, 2024 in Barnsdall, Oklahoma. Mike Simons/Tulsa World via AP. All rights reserved.

An estimated 1,200 homes suffered major damage, as well as several medical facilities near Jane Phillips Hospital. The Hampton Inn had been hit directly by the tornado, and though many people were left trapped inside for hours, only minor injuries were reported.

By 7:00 am the next morning, over 45,000 addresses in the surrounding community were still without power, but emergency crews had restored electricity at the church. “Since the church had power, we were going to use it,” said Rev. Pierce.

Children’s Pastor Megan Barrett promptly embarked on a mission to procure mass quantities of whatever food she could find, and within hours the church reopened its doors as a shelter, offering food to a community without power or ways to prepare meals. Shortly, the Washington County (Oklahoma) Emergency Management Facebook account posted about what the church was doing.

The original post was shared over 700 times.

By offering themselves as the hands and feet of Jesus without qualification, they were able to serve their community as so much more than just a faith organization. Besides food, they were able to give shelter to those without a place to stay, medical and mental health care for those in need, clothing, and even power.

Quite literally, the volunteers of Bartlesville First Church of the Nazarene were a light in the darkness.

“Our goal and our hope was, now it’s clean up, and [to] make sure that people are getting the help that they need to do that well,” said Lead Pastor Steve Spangenberg in a local television report.

“Some of us played games, and our youth group entertained the kids that were there giving the parents a time of rest,” said Rev. Pierce.

Here is coverage from a local TV station:

Taking It to the Streets

Of course, many churches are guilty of finding ways to interact with the community—particularly with programs that attract positive media coverage—so the organization/institution ultimately benefits. This is calculated in terms of attendance, offerings, and name recognition.

However, the volunteers at Bartlesville First Church of the Nazarene took the opposite approach, quietly continuing their efforts while still sharing Christ’s love in dynamic, tangible ways. For example, you may have noticed by this point that I have not shared any pictures of the nice people at this church engaged in any of the selfless activities I have ascribed to them. That’s because these volunteers were so busy serving others, they didn’t take the time to stop and snap a pic so others could see.

A home destroyed by the May 6 Barnsdall-Bartlesville tornado.
A home destroyed by the May 6 Barnsdall-Bartlesville tornado. Image by KFOR-TV via X.

As the church continued to provide food to the community around the clock Tuesday May 7th, Rev. Barrett and her family stayed at the church overnight as did Rev. Pierce, in case more people came in need of shelter. On Wednesday, while fresh volunteers prepared and served hot meals, the church staff delivered bag lunches to first responders and linemen making repairs to power lines.

“We knew that as people got power, the immediate need of food and shelter was going to shift to cleanup and restoration,“ said Rev. Pierce.

That evening, rather than holding their usual mid-week service, dozens of church volunteers split into groups and went to homes of people in the community who needed help cleaning up. For locations where the work was too extensive to complete in a single day, the church came back on Saturday May 11th to continue the work.

Rev. Pierce told me, “The people at my church have been itching to serve, and they are showing up in big ways.” Volunteers on horseback set out along the path of the tornado in a search and recovery mission. “There are still a few people who have not been found,” reports Rev. Pierce. He said that he has not yet located Cody, the person experiencing homelessness who Rev. Pierce had provided meals in the days and weeks before the storm hit.

Addressing the long-term needs of those in both Bartlesville and Barnsdall is a priority to the church. “We are already gathering household items for the people who lost everything,” said Rev. Pierce. “People in the church have been asking about permanently donating their RVs to those who have lost their homes.”

How Beautiful…

Not every church is placed directly in the path of a tornado, and certainly there are other stories of Christ-followers helping others in their respective communities. But every one of us lives in a space and time where those within the reach of our arms need something.

The difference between Christlike disciples and those who go to church is how we are known by our love. Is Christ’s love just lip service, or is it expressed by doing unto others?

I know of blowhards who write copiously about the role of the church and the moral code they believe holy people should follow, but many of these people take offerings by speaking at churches and conferences rather than actually giving their help to the ones who need it most in their community.

An AI generated image of feet standing on debris from a home destroyed after a storm.
Sometimes beautiful feet bring good news by cleaning up after a storm. Image by JTY. All rights reserved.

And sure, passing an offering plate (physically or digitally) may help someone in a small way—that’s because traditional churches generally spend large amounts of their money funding salaries and church campuses. But whatever you do within your ability, do it in love.

Tornadoes aren’t selective; individuals of all genders and pronouns, colors, ethnicities, ages, economic status, and disabilities deserve nothing less than perfect love that casts out fear. And no matter what disaster or trial suffering people in our world may face, you and I are called to be the loving hands and feet of Jesus.

And by the way, beautiful feet need more stories like this to tell.

About James Travis Young
James Travis Young is an ordained minister in the Church of the Nazarene making Christlike disciples alongside his spouse in Galveston, Texas, USA. Travis has served for decades in several active ministry roles including pastor, church planter, and teacher, and his writing has been featured in several books and publications. You can read more about the author here.

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