Religion angles twist in Tornado Alley


Tornado Alley. 

The Bible Belt. 

Do the two comprise the same general area or not?

Just a random question that entered my mind as I perused coverage of the April 27 tornadoes that killed hundreds and injured thousands in the South -- and I don't imagine that there is one right answer.

But I wondered about it when I read this Reuters headline:

In tornado-ravaged Bible Belt, churches mobilize to help

Anyway ...

Last week, I highlighted coverage of faith and hope after the nation's deadliest twister outbreak in decades. Now, nearly two weeks after the big storm, faith-based relief efforts are gaining media attention.

The Reuters story gave this breathless description of church relief workers:

These are not naive, disorganized do-gooders. They are professional volunteers with first class equipment and meticulous training.

Smelley's crew maintains a trailer filled with chainsaws, safety glasses, chaps, gloves, extra chains and chainsaw repair tools. It is parked at a church member's home for fast access. Similar trailers dot the parking lots of churches from nearly every religious denomination in Alabama.

Some trailers open out into "feeding units," such as one maintained by the Baptist denomination that is a 53-foot semi-truck and can issue 25,000 meals a day.

Other units include a shower and laundry truck, emergency child-care trucks, supply trucks, and tool trucks like the chainsaw trailers, according to Keith Hinson, spokesperson for Baptist Disaster Relief. Several warehouses store the trailers packed with supplies and equipment.

The New York Times, similarly, sang the praises of Baptists:

Of course, thousands of church members are doing their part to help the South recover from the tornadoes. They raise money, sort clothing donations and hand out water.

They are what the veterans of large faith-based relief efforts call S.U.V.’s -- spontaneous untrained volunteers. The efforts are welcomed, but they have nothing on what the Southern Baptists bring to a disaster.

From an elaborate “war room” in a church building in Montgomery, Ala., to direct lines of communication with federal and local emergency agencies, the Southern Baptist disaster ministry is a model of efficiency.

I promise. That's from the Times, not Baptist Press.

I think it's wonderful that major media are recognizing the crucial role that faith-based groups play in disaster relief and reporting on it. But I would prefer -- please don't hate me, Baptists -- that a news story provide a source when characterizing an organization as a "model of efficiency."

Then again, the Times includes attribution (general as it is) but not a lot of concrete evidence to back up this statement:

But when it comes to disaster relief, the link between church and state has never been stronger than during the most recent storms in the South, say federal officials and the leaders of faith-based disaster relief work.

Alas, this is the Times, so a story like this would not be complete without a section about (cue the dramatic music) "proselytizing victims":

Religion and secular rescue efforts do not always mix easily. Jessica Powers, a Red Cross volunteer from New York who ran the feeding operation in conjunction with the Southern Baptist group here, said that on a disaster mission in Louisiana, a Baptist worker riding along with the Red Cross was proselytizing victims.

“I had to say to him that the Red Cross is a humanitarian organization, and one of our positions is neutrality,” she said.

For the Baptists, spreading the word about Jesus Christ is an essential reason they head into disaster zones over and over.

“You have an opportunity to tell people that the Lord loves you,” Mr. Blankenship said. “When you hand someone food when they’re hungry, the door’s open.

Meanwhile, The Associated Press did a story on churches of different denominations forging bonds after the tornadoes. It's a laudable attempt at enterprise reporting, but it seemed to me that it tried to stretch a relatively weak anecdote into too large a story.

The AP report opened with a Baptist pastor leaving a voice mail at an Assemblies of God church. The Baptist pastor offered the Assemblies of God church -- damaged in the storm -- any help that it needed, including use of the Baptist building. Maybe it's me, but that did not seem like a remarkable phone call. It impressed me as something many pastors of different denominations would do.

Later in the story, though, we find out that the Assemblies of God church did not accept the Baptist invitation:

Despite the offer from Watkins, Jacks moved his Assembly of God congregation of about 400 for a Thursday evening service to the non-denominational Peoples Church in nearby Hueytown, where he once served as worship leader and where the services are closer to his own Pentecostal denomination's exuberant style of raised hands and singing and clapping.

Besides, the pastor, Buddy Poe, is an old friend who says God came to him and told him to open his door to Jacks and his congregation. Jacks says God delivered a similar message to him.

Besides? Am I the only one thinking those paragraphs out of order? Um, if God made a personal visit ("came to him") to one pastor and "delivered a similar message" to the other, did that perhaps play a bigger role than the style of worship?

Alas, those are the only two sentences in the entire story about God's role in where the congregation decided to meet. The AP drops that angle like a hot potato!

Finally, and I have saved the best for last, if you like a fantastic story told in a compelling way, you must read CNN's piece on faith and football -- and even the history of race relations -- in tornado-ravaged Tuscaloosa, Ala.:

On April 27, a mile-wide tornado tore through Tuscaloosa, one of nearly 200 twisters to strike the South as part of a record storm. Hundreds died, including dozens in this college town – many of whom lived in the area known as Alberta City where College Hill Baptist sits.

The church lies at the center of the damage, as well as at the crossroads of faith, football and Alabama history. In a community where gospel and gridiron are interwoven like a hand-stitched Southern quilt, it all comes together at College Hill Baptist.

I'll resist the urge to copy and paste giant sections of the 2,400-word story, but I will share my favorite graf of the entire piece:

A pious man with veins that bleed Crimson Tide and Bible scripture, Greene says the tornado looked like the devil when it came through. “It began to make a tail,” he says in an accent as thick as sorghum. “It went up in the air, like it had arms and shoulders.”

Read the whole thing. It almost made this Sooner fan (and resident of Tornado Alley/the Bible Belt) want to scream, "Roll Tide!" But not quite.

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