Faith after twisters strike

Watching East Coast-dominated media coverage from middle America was pretty interesting this week. While Washington was obsessed over who needs to apologize for Rush Limbaugh's remarks and who said what over Andrew Briebart's death, those of us in the Midwest watched different kinds of disasters unfold this week. From the Ohio school shooting earlier this week to towns flattened by tornadoes, you can imagine how pastors might be adjusting their notes for weekend sermons on tragedy.

A string of tornadoes and severe thunderstorms plowed through the Midwest and the South on Friday, leaving more than 35 people dead, hundreds injured and buildings destroyed. A baby was found in a field, but the rest of her family was killed by the tornado. To get a sense of the damage done, you might take a minute to look at some stunning photos compiled by the Boston Globe's Big Picture blog, which leads off with a photo of a destroyed Catholic church in Illinois. Those without cameras still painted a picture of the wide-spread devastation from the storms. I love the color one reporter uses to describe a damaged church.

Most of the stained-glass windows survived. So did the steeple, although the cross on top was bent crooked by the wind. Priest had not checked on the bell. He was afraid it might come down on his head. But he unhooked the rope from the wall and pulled, gingerly at first.

It clanged. He pulled harder. It clanged louder. He pulled and pulled.

“That’s a sign we’re going to be here,” he said.

Other outlets like CNN captured some of the faith angles in recovery efforts.

Snow began to fall at sunrise on Sunday as Sam Kelly, 10, tended a small fire outside Henryville Community Church in the shadow of Henryville High School. Pallets of bottled water piled up outside the church's recreation center. The church suffered virtually no damage from Friday's violent storms. The school next door is in ruins.

Across the road, the neighborhood is a tangled mess of 2x4s, metal siding, and the remains of family homes.

Henryville Community Presbyterian Church, a half mile up the road, lost its roof and stained-glass windows, and pews were upended across the sanctuary.

St. Francis Xavier Catholic Church has become a staging ground for rescue workers and media briefings.

"The hand of God was on us. We didn't get any damage," said Shawn Kelly, youth pastor at Henryville Community Church.

Other reporters could have used a little more detail. A piece from the Courier & Press quotes someone who decided not to leave their house to seek shelter as saying "We're very grounded in our religion, so we felt we were OK." Sorry, what religion is that? Similarly, a report from the Huntsville Times says that a resident "leaned on her faith" as the storm approached. It takes about two seconds to ask what faith she is describing.

In the recovery process, it's probably natural for survivors to hunker down and pick up the pieces on their own. But those involved in faith communities might find friends who are especially generous with time, money and other resources. A USA Today story illustrates what's happening on the ground in Henryville, Indiana.

Inside St. Francis during Sunday Mass, the only light came from candles on the altar and pale sunlight coming through stained glass windows. There was no power and no heat. The congregation of about 150 people compared notes about damage to their homes, the safety of their families. Margaret Short, 62, said it was important to pray together "because we're a small community and this is our church and we have so much to be thankful for." Tears fell as she spoke of her own family's scary moments Friday — her daughter took shelter in a closet — and the generosity of her neighbors and church family. Gesturing at the pile of donated items, she said, "It's not remarkable. This is normal in our community."

The final quote in that section is, in some ways, the challenge for reporters. Generosity from a faith community is, in one sense, "not remarkable." If members of churches were not reaching out to one another, that would be more unusual. So in the coming days, it could be difficult for reporters to capture something particularly unusual about faith communities helping each other. The key, though, is taking the time to show the underlying motivations for why people help one another in these times of need.

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