After the Twister: One Church’s Story

By   •   June 2, 2011

The story made national headlines. Christopher Lucas, the manager of a Pizza Hut restaurant in Joplin, Mo., died while trying to save the lives of four employees and 15 customers on May 22.

Shepherding the terrified group into the restaurant’s freezer as the killer twister bore down on them, Lucas stepped out to wrap a bungee cable across the door and hold it shut with his arms.

“And then, when everything blew away, he was gone, the door was gone, everything…,” said one of the survivors.

In his remarks before some 2,000 Joplin residents on the campus of Missouri Southern State University Sunday, President Obama praised Lucas for his heroic action that deadly day.

Across town, his parents’ pastor, John Swadley, had ushered his own family into the crawl space under their home the minute tornado sirens began wailing. Swadley managed to grab a radio and a cell phone on the way down–essential items for keeping in touch with a world whirling out of control overhead.

The pastor of Forest Park Baptist Church said he knew from hearing radio reports that “this was a disaster of major proportions.” He kept in touch with a Bible study group huddled in the basement of his church, texting reports back and forth, and posting on Facebook information he heard on the radio.

When the all clear was given, Swadley rushed over to Forest Park. Miraculously, the church sustained only minor damage. Three other churches in Joplin—Catholic, Methodist and Baptist—were heavily damaged or destroyed.

More than 70 members of Forest Park Baptist emerged to find their homes or apartments gone–completely wiped out. Hundreds of other members’ homes sustained serious damage.

Some people discovered their homes were spared entirely, but their place of employment was destroyed. “When their mortgage payment is due next month, they are going to need our help,” said Swadley.

With all the damage and destruction, only a handful of people connected with Forest Park Baptist Church died. Tomorrow (June 3), Swadley will conduct a funeral for one of them.

Some of his time is spent consoling members whose loved ones died, such as the mother and father of Christopher Lucas, or people struggling to accept the loss of everything they owned.

“We have had a wide variety of responses,” Swadley said. “Many of our people who lost their homes are doing just fine. They have a strong faith; their minds are not ultimately on material things and they know they’ll be able to recover.”

But other people are hurting terribly. “They had friends or loved one who were taken, so one of our challenges as the body of Christ is to rejoice with those who rejoice and mourn with those who mourn,” said Swadley. “We try to meet every person at their point of need and minister to them as Jesus would.”

Forest Park Baptist is now at the heart of the national relief effort for Joplin. The church is coordinating food, volunteer assignments and donations for the city. It is also the base of operations for the Billy Graham Rapid Response chaplains and Samaritan’s Purse volunteers.

On Memorial Day, Swadley met with Franklin Graham as he visited Joplin to encourage volunteers and pray with survivors. “Franklin said he is so appreciative of what our church is doing, and we are appreciative in return,” said Swadley. “The need is enormous, way more than we can do on our own, so are grateful for faithful partners to come alongside us and help us minister to people.”

He added, “We think the world of Billy Graham and Franklin. We’re so thankful for their contribution to spreading the Good News about Jesus and to meeting human needs all over this planet.”

In hearing that visitors to have asked how they can pray for the people of Joplin, Swadley, with great emotion, expressed his thankfulness: “We really believe that if people continue to pray for us in the weeks ahead, it will be the difference between rowing a rowboat and sailing in a sailboat. When people pray for us, the wind fills the sails and we are carried forward on the power of God.”

Pastor Swadley’s Prayer Requests

  • For the people of Joplin: Pray that God would give them hope so they don’t despair in this dark moment. When disaster happens, people either get bitter or they get better. When they turn to God, they get better and bitterness is kept at bay.
  • Pray for families. I have heard that there is often a spike in the divorce rate after a major tragedy as families who are already dealing with considerable stress have this additional stress dumped onto them.
  • Pray that God would supply for the church’s financial needs so we can pass on the help people need. It is likely that our offerings will go down because so many tithers in our church were affected. Yet, our need for financial resources has never been greater. We want to help people so they won’t lose their homes. We want to help those who were not insured to get back into a place where they can live.
  • Pray that we’ll be able to establish long-term ministry that is sustainable. We know that these first two weeks, we’ll be working 18 hour days every day, but we also know that is not sustainable for the long haul. Pray that we’ll be able to discern how to continue to provide ministry not just in the next days, but for months and months.

“We want to be a light in this community for the long haul and to have a long-term response,” said Swadley. “Pray that God will show us how He would have us do that.”

Visit the Forest Park Baptist website »

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  1. mike says:

    Said a prayer for you all today and prayed for the requests on the list – thank you being a lighthouse to this community.

  2. Doug and Polly, Wellington, On says:

    We as Canadians, and neighbors, pray for all affected by the Tornado and its awful aftermath. Regularly, our church prays for strength, peace, provision and JOY to return to those touched. May the Lord strengthen the volunteers in every way! Blessings to you all!

  3. Lynn says:

    I pray that God will bless the people of all the tornados both spiritually and financially and heal their wounds. In Jesus'name I pray.