For six days, First Baptist Church in Moore, Oklahoma, provided food and shelter to victims of Monday’s deadly tornado. On the seventh day, the church offers another scarce resource: solace.
“Simply put, we are urging people to draw near to the Lord and near to each other,” said Kevin Clarkson, the church’s senior pastor. “As bad as this time is, we find that God will give us comfort and solace and hope for the future.”
Four of the nine children who died in Monday’s tornado had ties to First Baptist. On Sunday evening, the church will host a prayer service called “Oklahoma Strong: Coming Together in Faith,” which Gov. Mary Fallin is expected to attend.
In all, 24 people perished as a result of Monday’s tornado. Nearly 400 suffered broken bones and bruises, and 1,200 homes in Moore and Oklahoma City were damaged or destroyed, according to state officials. The twister’s tenacity took even Tornado Alley by surprise.
But as cleanup begins, imams, pastors and rabbis in the deeply religious Sooner State are encouraging believers to draw on the deep wells of their traditions for spiritual sustenance. The common message across the faiths seems to be: God’s voice was not in Monday’s whirlwind but rather in the steady, quiet aftermath of neighbor helping neighbor.
“What happens may be random, but how we respond to it is not,” said Rabbi Vered L. Harris of Temple B’nai Israel in Oklahoma City. “Making our responses holy begins with noticing the potential for sanctity.”
One block, two tornadoes: Life in the crosshairs
At Shabbat services on Friday night, Harris read a prayer asking God for the wisdom “to know how we can help” and “the calm to bring comfort.”
Like Harris, Abdur-Rahman Taleb, the director of youth services at the Islamic Society of Greater Oklahoma City, focused on the human response to Monday’s tornado.
“I find it amazing how people will come together across their differences for a common goal,” Taleb said. “The amount of people who came forward from the different faith communities to help those in need, regardless of their beliefs, is extraordinary.”
Taleb said his sermon on Friday focused on the Quran’s second chapter, which tells Muslims that God tests the faithful with “fear and hunger and loss of property.”
Passing that test entails remaining patient amid calamity, the Quran says.
“We want to be mindful of God day in and day out, whether we’re going through good times or bad,” Taleb said.
At Journey Church, an evangelical megachurch about 10 miles from Moore, Sunday’s message is about rebuilding, said Pastor Sam Wampler.
The congregation will look to Nehemiah, who restored the walls of Jerusalem, for inspiration, said the pastor.
“We are far enough in now where the grieving, the anger, is kicking in,” Wampler said. “People need that hope.”
Pastor Bobby Gruenewald of LifeChurch.tv, which has 11 branches in Oklahoma, said his message on Sunday will focus on two key questions: Where is God during tragedies? And what can Christians do to help?
“It’s been a tough week but also an encouraging one as we’ve seen a tremendous response from the faith community,” Gruenewald said. “Churches from just about every denomination we can think of are coming forward with offers to help.”
A garden statue of the Virgin Mary stands in front of a window shattered by the tornado in Moore, Oklahoma. Some of the tornado’s first-responders have been turning to the Rev. Thomas Boyer, the longtime pastor at St. Mark the Evangelist Catholic Church in nearby Norman, Oklahoma.
“It will be tough on them now,” said the 72-year-old priest, “and it will be tough on them later.”
Boyer said he’s still searching for the right words to say in response.
“Normally my homily is done on Thursday and posted on the website, but it’s not even done,” the priest said on Friday afternoon, as day darkened into night.
Boyer will have some help: the Archdiocese of Oklahoma City adjusted the prayers and petitions for Sunday Mass to address the area’s tribulations.
But sometimes there is nothing to say other than “look to the Lord,” said Clarkson, who has already presided at the funerals of three young tornado victims.
Perhaps that’s why Jared Bowie’s photo of a dark tornado twisting toward a cross has gone viral.
Bowie, an intern at LifeChurch.tv’s campus in Edmond, Oklahoma, said his image has graced thousands of blog posts, media reports, Facebook pages and Instagram accounts since he posted it to CNN’s iReport. One woman even printed out the image and hung it next to her wedding photo, Bowie said.
The picture was taken on May 19, when another tornado, a less destructive forebear of Monday’s deadly whirlwind, churned through Oklahoma. Nonetheless, the image has become inextricably tied to Moore’s loss of lives and homes, and the ultimate source of salvation for Bowie and other Christians.
“People are going through severe suffering right now,” Bowie said. “But in those times, our Savior can provide so much hope. There is light in the darkness.”
Eric Marrapodi, Dan Merica and Jessica Ravitz contributed to this report.