Church bells call people to prepare for worship. The month of April has seen tornado sirens throughout the South call people of faith to pray for deliverance from severe storms and to ask God and one another how they might assist the storms’ victims.
The month’s storms culminated in the devastation that focused on northern Alabama Wednesday evening. Tornadoes and flooding throughout the South have left survivors and displaced households who wait for assistance from people called into action by their churches.
In Arkansas, the state has long had a relationship with disaster response teams established by different churches. For example, Presbyterians store supplies between natural disasters, Baptists have chainsaw ministries, and Episcopalians provide trucks and drivers to transport goods. Social media and emails have gotten out the news of what needs to be done this time.
Toby Rowe, an Arkansas Episcopalian whose house was destroyed when a massive tornado swept through Vilonia Monday evening, said that among the first people he saw were Church of Christ volunteers passing out boxes containing supplies that families would need in the first 24 hours after losing a home. As clean up from the storms began, three congregations in downtown Little Rock — Second Baptist Church, First Methodist Church, and Christ Episcopal Church — put out a call for volunteers to assist in debris removal. Another church is taking in the pets of people who have no place for them now that their owners are living in emergency shelters or apartments rented by their insurance companies. Stories are coming in to denominational offices about church buildings whose roofs have been blown off. In almost every case, church members interviewed say that they are thankful that lives were spared, and they have announced that they are going to rebuild; the focus has not been on the wrath of a God who would allow such a thing to happen.
The amazing thing about this series of storms is that it has done much to bring churches together that historically have had little to do with one another. The response to segregation in the South left many churches at odds with one another when the Civil Rights movement began. Those feelings were very slow to heal. In more recent years, differences of opinion on issues such as gay marriage and the acceptance of Muslims in local communities have once again divided churches.
But the overwhelming violence of the storms — and their lack of distinction between believer and non-believer — has served as a catalyst that encourages people of different faiths to work together. That may be one positive legacy of this spring’s storm season.
It will take a while before the harder theological questions are faced, such as why a loving God would allow such destruction to occur to innocent people. It is a question that is always asked in light of natural disasters. Church leaders will have time in the future for such thoughtful reflection. For right now, there is a more immediate response, one that emphasizes that people find shelter and food, and most importantly, an assurance that that they are loved. Area churches are doing their part to make it happen.
Bishop Larry R. Benfield has served as the bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Arkansas since 2007. He oversees 57 congregations throughout the entire state.[This article was originally published in the Huffington Post on 4-29-11]