LCMS reaches out after tornadoes, seeks volunteers

(Editor’s note: Some information in this story already has been reported in previous Reporter Online stories. This is the “wrap-up” story that appears in the June print Reporter.)

By Melanie Ave

When a monstrous tornado plowed through Moore, Okla., May 20, killing 24 people, injuring hundreds and ripping apart thousands of buildings — including two schools and a hospital — the LCMS response was quick and substantial.

A cross marks the crumbled remains of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., where seven children were killed. (Dan Gill)

A cross marks the crumbled remains of Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Okla., where seven children were killed. (Dan Gill)

The LCMS approved an initial $100,000 emergency grant to the Synod’s Oklahoma District four days after the Moore tornado and earlier tornadoes that swept through the state May 19. The grant was intended to meet immediate tornado-relief needs of LCMS members and the community.

Oklahoma District Disaster-Response Coordinator Rev. Ronald Simpson said nine LCMS member families lost their homes from the May 19-20 tornadoes — five from St. John’s Lutheran Church, Moore, Okla., and four from Trinity Lutheran Church, Norman, Okla. The home of one Trinity family was damaged by a May 19 tornado that struck Newalla, Okla. — just east of Oklahoma City.

The tornado that roared through Moore was rated an EF5, considered the most dangerous with winds exceeding 200 mph. There were no reports of deaths or injuries to LCMS congregation members. No LCMS congregations or schools were damaged.

The LCMS and its districts, congregations, auxiliaries and partner organizations “have thrown themselves into a response to the tornado disaster,” Simpson said in an email. “And all those on the scene ministering to the hurting are very grateful for the God-given, heartfelt response.”

LCMS Disaster Response staff from St. Louis visited the state’s tornado-swept areas May 24-25, meeting with local Lutherans and distributing $50 gift cards, sandwiches, drinking water, and “hugs and prayer,” according to the Rev. John Fale, associate executive director of LCMS Mercy Operations.

“This response is very grassroots,” Fale said. “Whether in Moore or Shawnee, our LCMS congregations are being led by their pastors and key lay leaders to find ways that they can bring very tangible expressions of God’s mercy to people who have been affected.”

St. John’s in Moore is serving as a community-relief and recovery-aid station for receiving and distributing water, diapers, plastic bins, trash bags, toiletries and other needed items. The congregation also is offering 30 local elementary-age children scholarships to its five-week summer camp.

Norman and Oklahoma City-area congregations are making their members available for ongoing community walks, where they will hand out devotional materials and gift cards, Simpson said. They also are providing volunteers to staff the distribution center at St. John’s.

Simpson said the most pressing physical need for LCMS members and the community directly affected by the tornadoes is short- and long-term housing.

“I know this is a common thing to say, but it’s true: Pray for us,” Simpson said. “Pray for the survivors. Pray that we give a good Gospel witness. I’m very proud of our Lord, that He has prepared people on different levels of training and experience.

“It’s just amazing to see the work He has done that is now bearing fruit. It’s almost overwhelming how our Lord is so giving in that regard.”

On May 26, nearly a week after the tornado, St. John’s, Moore, posted a note on its Facebook page: “We are so thankful to all those across our nation and community who have donated so many things for us to be able to distribute to local families. We have served families in Moore, South Oklahoma City and Newcastle. God bless each of you! Your generosity is not only helping with practical needs, but also comforting these families knowing that you care.”

Comfort Dogs from Lutheran Church Charities, Addison, Ill., visited St. John’s and Trinity in the days after the tornado to provide relief to those affected, as well as to the volunteers and relief workers. LCMS chaplains have been meeting with families in the area.

On May 20, St. John Pastor Mark Bersche’s 11-year-old daughter, Ashleigh, was crouched in the hallway of Briarwood Elementary School, which was reduced to a pile of mostly rubble by the tornado. She was not injured.

Bersche said he will never forget what he saw as he ran up to the school after the tornado, looking for his daughter.

“Everything was twisted and demolished,” he said. “I know everyone says it, but it’s true. It looked like a war zone.”

A block to the west of Briarwood Elementary, on the Moore-Oklahoma City border, all that was left standing in the three-bedroom brick home of Trinity member Linda Shoemake was four walls. She had lived there for 14 years and was not at home when the tornado came through.

“Your heart just falls out when you see it,” she said of the damage.

Shoemake said she is not sure whether she will rebuild or move elsewhere, but she thanked all the volunteers who have come to help.

“When you’re sitting here, you keep thinking about what you need, what you’re going to need,” said Shoemake, a former lighting saleswoman. “You think, ‘I’ve got to get this picked up.’ And then you think, ‘I’ve gotta get out of here.’ ”

Vicar Aaron Uphoff, right, talks with Trinity Lutheran Church, Norman, Okla., prayer service attendees on May 22. (Dan Gill)

Vicar Aaron Uphoff, right, talks with Trinity Lutheran Church, Norman, Okla., prayer service attendees on May 22. (Dan Gill)

The day of the tornado, Aaron Uphoff, who is finishing his vicarage at Trinity, Norman, drove to the epicenter of the destruction in Moore on a borrowed bicycle and spent time walking through the devastated neighborhoods. He talked with many people, including parents waiting for their children at Plaza Towers Elementary, where seven children died. In all, 10 children were killed by the Moore tornado.

“I prayed with as many people as I could,” Uphoff said. “I asked Christ for comfort and for the peace that surpasses all understanding, which is ours by virtue of Good Friday and Easter.”

Seeing firsthand the emotions of those affected by the tornado, he said, “reminded me of who we are as the church: When one member rejoices, we all rejoice together. When one member suffers, we all suffer together.”

Trinity members Dennis and Jeanie Brinkoetter of Newalla lost their 2,100-square-foot home where they have lived for 25 years when an EF4 tornado dropped from the sky one day before the Moore tornado. The family heard news reports about the storm and drove south shortly before it hit. When they returned, 80 percent of their home’s roof was gone and all that was left of the structure was four wobbly walls.

On one wall of the family’s living room, the tornado shattered a fireplace. On another wall, a picture of Jesus that had belonged to Dennis Brinkoetter’s grandmother hung perfectly straight.

Brinkoetter said his faith is strong. He and his family plan to rebuild.

“God has a plan,” he said. “He just doesn’t tell us what it is. I know there is a reason for this and maybe we’ll see it down the road. There’s no other way to look at it.”

For more information on the LCMS response in Moore, visit St. John’s Facebook page at facebook.com/stjohnsmoore or lcms.org/disaster.

Fale said LCMS congregations can best support the relief effort by contributing to LCMS Disaster Response.

Those who want to give are encouraged to designate the Synod’s general disaster fund, he said.

To see a photo album of the LCMS response to the tornado, click here.

To support those in need through LCMS Disaster Response:

  • Mail checks payable to “The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod” (with a memo line or note designating “LCMS Disaster Relief”) to The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, P.O. Box 66861, St. Louis, MO 63166-6861.
  • Call toll-free 888-930-4438 (8:10 a.m. to 4:10 p.m. CST, Monday through Friday).

For those interested in volunteering for tornado cleanup in Oklahoma, St. John’s Lutheran Church, with the help of Lutheran Church Charities (LCC), is providing volunteer registration for individuals and groups. Registration forms are on the congregation’s website, stjohnsmoore.com. All volunteers must complete an individual registration form. Call LCC at 866-455-6466 or send an email message to LCC@LutheranChurchCharities.org with any questions.

Melanie Ave is senior writer and social media coordinator for LCMS Communications.

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