March 1, 1997 and the week that followed was disorienting and full of heightened emotions.
The day of the tornado I went from lazily browsing sociological themes in the morning, to testing the limits of my endurance as I raced around downed trees to make my way back to my university campus. Stopping at the nearest dorm, I used the lobby phone to call home to my parents. A male dormitory, I was lucky that some of my guy friends had returned to change clothes and gather extra pairs of gloves, and came over to put their arm around me as I waited to find out if my family was ok. It took several attempts to get through, but when I did my mother sounded just as panicked as I felt.
In my rush to get downtown, I had not considered that the news would have quickly reported the damage in Arkadelphia, and my poor parents had been left unable to get in touch with me or find out about my condition. My family was ok, and my stepfather had already left to assist in a neighborhood just behind ours which had suffered damage similar to what we had experienced. My mother encouraged me to be safe as I hung up the phone and climbed in the back of a truck with the guys to go and help with additional clean up efforts.
Sixteen tornadoes struck Arkansas that day with twenty-five fatalities, six of which were in Arkadelphia.
In addition to homes, business and historical buildings in the downtown area, the tornado caused destruction to the church I was attending at the time, Second Baptist, and a mobile-home park nearby. Our university, and the one across the street, provided significant manpower for the recovery effort. I spent the week at the armory, which had become a makeshift Red Cross headquarters, assisting families with their intake paperwork. I also braved my fear of needles to voluntarily get a tetanus shot (required for anyone who wanted to assist with cleanup) and give blood for the first time.
The stories that emerged that week were awe-inspiring: the fact that the tornado had completely bypassed both college campuses; tales of jewelry and trinkets sitting unmoved on tables in homes where roofs had been torn off and furniture overturned; near misses and inexplicable encounters. One of my favorite stories was from a friend’s family, who were huddled in a closet as their father prayed over them during the storm. After the tornado passed, and with their roof gone, the mother went next door to check on an elderly neighbor. When she looked back across at her home, and saw her daughters’ wicker doll basket sitting up high. Upon returning to her home, she noticed that the basket was stacked on a shelf above the closet in which they had sought refuge.
That tornado was not the first traumatizing event I encountered in my life, and it was certainly not the last. Our experience of pain runs the scale from mundane disappointments to unexplainable tragedies. Like most of my generation, I was deeply impacted from what I experienced on September 11, 2001 and by how my world has changed since. Most recently, I have had to deal with the questions and emotions that arose after a cousin was tragically killed by lightning while trying to protect his family.
What remains after tragedy are the lessons we allow ourselves to learn.
With each experience, I am reminded to stop, to examine my priorities, to examine what matters most.
With each experience, I am reminded of the frailty of life, of the meaninglessness of attachment to treasures that moth and rust and tornado can destroy, of the significance of relationships.
With each experience, I am reminded of the significance of love, community, hospitality and service.
With each experience, I am reminded to lay my soul bare before the one who created me, to allow the spirit of the creator to reveal to me what needs to be changed and molded, and how I was created to live.
2 Corinthians 4
Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart. But we have renounced disgraceful, underhanded ways. We refuse to practice cunning or to tamper with God’s word, but by the open statement of the truth we would commend ourselves to everyone’s conscience in the sight of God. And even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled only to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So
death is at work in us, but life in you. Since we have the same spirit of faith according to what has been written, "I believed, and so I spoke," we also believe, and so we also speak, knowing that he who raised the Lord Jesus will raise us also with Jesus and bring us with you into his presence. For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are
seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.