Death of Pastor's Cousin Leads St. Joseph UMC to Joplin

8/25/2011

The Rev. Mark Harris, senior pastor of St. Joseph United Methodist Church, had made all the arrangements to take a mission team from the church to Manhattan, Kan., to do repair work on the campus of Kansas State University.

And then, less than a month before the trip was planned, an EF5, multi-vortex tornado roared through Joplin, Missouri, cutting a one by six mile swath of utter destruction. The storm killed 159 people, including Sally Moulton, Rev. Harris’ first cousin. Sally was performing in a play at the Stained Glass Theater. The theater collapsed in the 200+ mile an hour winds taking Sally’s life.
 
After discussing it with his wife, Joanne, and seeking input from those committed to the trip, Rev. Harris decided to change the mission team’s destination…to Joplin. Leaving after worship on June 26, 17 St. Joseph United Methodists drove eight hours to the Carle Junction Christian church which would become home for the next six days.
 
Monday morning the team split in two. The larger group helped staff a supply distribution center which provided a plethora of needed items, from canned food, to diapers, baby food, cell phone chargers, flood buckets and even pet food. Included in this group were four members of the mission team--Hunter Harris, Mitchell Thompsen, Christina Holderly, and Allison Rose--who were too young to work in the debris removal area. They became stockers and purveyors of supplies in the plastic tents arranged around a church parking lot.
 
The smaller team, made up of younger and stronger adults, headed for the AmeriCorps assembly area. After being instructed on safety and issued heavy duty particle masks, the St. Joseph United Methodists were ferried to the debris area. Susan Thompsen, a fifth grade teacher at St. Joseph elementary, and church accompanist, echoed the shock felt by everyone when they came upon the destruction zone. “We walked up to this one house and we didn’t know where to begin.” A tree, four foot in diameter, had fallen on the house and shingles, lumber, insulation, foundation stones and other rubble were knee deep around the whole yard.
 
Other St. Joseph UM’s on the project included Sam and Hunter Harris; Steve Thompsen, Judy Howdyshell, Christina Holderly, Allison Rose, Chelsea Blaase, Mary and Bob Sievers, and Rev. John M. Kraps.
 
Susan’s son Ryan reflected, “I enjoyed moving all that rock because it looked like we did a lot. But at the end of the day, Ryan looked around and thought, “How many more times must this be done?!”
 
On Wednesday night, Sally Moulton’s sister, Kathy Mason, and her family held the St. Joseph group spellbound telling the story of Kathy and husband Fred holding onto the bathroom door with all their might as the wind sought to rip the frame out of the wall. Meanwhile their daughter and grandson were riding out the storm in a Harry Potter-type room under the stairs. Forty-five seconds later, the storm had passed. Kathy said when she and her husband emerged from the bathroom, all they could see was their destroyed refrigerator….and the sky above.
 
The worst for them was waiting seven hours to hear that their other daughter, Faith, was safe. With cell phones inoperable, Fred Mason observed, “Anybody who is not a believer in text messaging and Facebook, you would be after a disaster like this.” They were the means by which the Mason’s connected with their children. The Mason family credited God with delivering them from the maelstrom that swept over them. And they were thankful for the volunteers who came to help. The outsiders, Kathy said, bring fresh eyes and a “hope-spirit.” 
 
Rev. Harris is convinced that his decision to reorient the mission trip was a call from God. “I’m pleased that our folks have had the opportunity to do a variety of activities and to get out with people most affected by the disaster.” Nancy Kidd, who signed on to the trip after learning it was destined for the tornado zone, said she was deeply moved by the stories of the survivors. “In the midst of all the destruction and chaos, there is still hope,” she noted. Indeed, Sally Moulton did not die in vain.