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JOPLIN, Mo. — One year after the May 22, 2011, tornado destroyed more than a quarter of this southwest Missouri town of 50,000, the nearly 60-member congregation of St. James United Methodist Church is still displaced.
The tightly knit group meets each Sunday morning and Wednesday evening to worship in an old title company building about 10 blocks from where their church once stood.
Inside the conference-room-turned-sanctuary, the crosses may be donated, the chairs may be fold-out, but the storm that took so much from these people couldn't take at least one thing: their giving spirit.
If anything, it helped fortify it, said church member Joanne Wills, 81.
"Right now everybody is so helpful and giving, and you just feel like 'I've been given so much I just need to give some back.'"
The E-F5 tornado was the deadliest storm to hit the United States in more than 50 years, killing 160 people, including one member of St. James. It left a scar six miles long and more than a mile wide through Joplin, leveling more than 8,000 homes.
Rebuilding has been slow. The city imposed a two month building moratorium immediately following the tornado so the removal of the tons of debris left in the storm's wake wouldn't be interrupted.
While most of that debris is now gone, the wide swath that the tornado cut through the town separates the north side of town from the south. Housing foundations are the lone identifiers of former residential neighborhoods. In some places, concrete steps lead where no door waits.
On 20th Street in the heart of the "red zone," the St. James parking lot paves the way to an empty plot scattered with rocks.
"I've had churches damaged several times, but never destroyed," St. James Rev. Tommy Freeman said. "I've never experienced anything like this for myself, for the church, for the people in the church, for the community. It is absolutely devastating, and unless you experienced it, it is almost impossible to describe."
Freeman, 75, was on a cruise on the day the tornado destroyed his church. When he got the call that St. James was in the storm's path, he disembarked immediately to fly home. "When I saw it I just broke down and wept," he said.
The pastor immediately began searching for a new place for his members, even holding services in the basement of his home a week after the storm. The tiny St. James congregation then moved into a conference hall at the Christ Community Methodist Church until finding their new temporary home in August.
It wasn't ideal, Freeman said. "We really had no identity at the other church. We were meeting in their conference room, so even though you're at another church you have no identity. That's their congregation."
Diane Sadler, 51, the church's treasurer, whose home was destroyed by the storm, said losing the church building on top of losing her home was an especially hard blow.
"When I was walking around that very first day [after the tornado], I knew the church was going to be gone. It wasn't until I crested a hill that I saw not only was the church gone, but that I could see clear to Duquesne," a suburb four miles east of the church.
But the tornado has allowed the already close congregation to forge deeper bonds, said member Beverly Young, 75.
"The tornado brought everybody closer," young said. "So many same things happened to so many of us. If you didn't have to rebuild or find another place to live, then you had to remodel because it was damaged."
Freeman came to St. James eight years ago. A missions-minded minister, he brought with him the idea for the St. James congregation to fund special projects. It's something this congregation embraced, he said.
"Just because we're small doesn't mean we can't do other things for the lord. I emphasized missions and it took hold. It just caught on," Freeman said.
Each year Freeman has been there, the congregation met their goal to raise at least $5,000 for either Heifer International, The PET® Project of Columbia, Mo., or a Sedalia, Missouri-based charity, festival of Sharing. PET, which stands for personal energy transportation, provides mobility devices to people who have lost the use of their legs due to polio, landmines and other injuries or birth defects. The festival of Sharing brings together people of different denominations to aid those suffering from hunger, poverty, crisis and injustice.
Heifer became part of the rotation after Freeman introduced the organization to his congregation. "We had a man in our church that liked heifer, so it just kind of became one of the mission projects. Another man said, 'why don't we just do an ark?' I said 'do you know how much an ark is? it's $5,000!' So we did and we've been doing it now for five years. And we always meet the goal," Freeman said.
Amidst the chaos of a year defined by loss, St. James members not only gave enough to pay the church's apportionments— something Freeman's congregations have never failed to do in his 40 years of ministry—they exceeded their goal for Heifer by more than $100 just six months after the deadly storm demolished the church and the homes of about one-fifth of the congregation.
The members never thought twice about giving, even when they could have used the money for their own needs, Freeman said.
"We're not a rich church, but what I've learned is you can't out-give the Lord, and benefits will come back to you for doing it," Freeman said. "Don't look at the dollars, look at what you're doing for someone else.'"
Sadler said they've taken Freeman's message to heart. And, she said, the tornado even put the congregation in a unique position to give.
"We didn't have our normal utility expenses, so really we were in a better position than we normally would have been even though some members were coming and some weren't," she said.
Plus, Sadler said the knowledge that gifts to Heifer go to making others self-reliant resonated with the church after so many members lost their own possessions.
Though the past year has been a difficult one for St. James, the congregation is hopeful about its future.
Wills has finished the construction of her home, the first St. James member to do so, and has moved in. Sadler's home is under construction, and she hopes she can move in by the end of the summer—the same projected finish date for the church.
And while this year isn't the year for funds to come to Heifer, the congregation is already more than halfway to its goal of $5,000 for PET, and they're looking forward to giving to Heifer again in 2013.
Plans for a new church are drawn up and awaiting approval by the Methodist Church. Their new church home will be smaller than what they're used to at 10,560 square feet, but it will be nicer than the last, Freeman said.
"It's going to be a beautiful church," he said. "There will be some stained glass windows. We're going to have valet parking for seniors, and hopefully we'll get people with children joining. We're looking forward to it."