It isn’t lost on Senior Pastor Bob Deich of Grace United Methodist Church in Ruston that the tragic tornado that devasted his small city struck in the middle of the Easter season.
“It’s still Easter,” he said. “It was a celebration of hope, a celebration of resurrection. Storms produce rainbows.”
The people of Ruston are ready for rainbows. The EF-3 tornado with estimated winds up to 145 miles per hour was on the ground for only seven minutes in the early morning hours of April 25, but it left a four-mile path of destruction that resembles rubble from an invading army.
"This is different..."
Two people were killed, and more than 1,200 homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed. Officials estimate that approximately 500 tons of debris are being picked up each day as the recovery moves forward.
It’s a familiar drill for Deich, who also is the Louisiana Conference Early Response Team coordinator and chairman of the Louisiana Disaster Relief Team. But usually, Deich is responding to an out-of-town tragedy. Grace Church is about one mile north of the path the tornado carved through his city.
“This is a different disaster for me,” he said. “I get to sleep in my own bed at night.”
Or not. Deich has been working around the clock since the tornado hit. The phone calls and texts started just 10 minutes after the tornado struck at 1:47 a.m. “Within 10 minutes, I got a call for a church member about trees coming down on a neighbor’s house.”
Deich and others went into action before the sun was up. Volunteers gathered at Trinity United Methodist, just on the edge of the tornado’s path, and set up an emergency shelter by 3 a.m.
“But the power was out, so we started moving people into a nearby elementary school at around 3:30,” said Trinity Associate Pastor Leslie Stephens, who also serves as the Monroe District Disaster Coordinator. “By 5 a.m., we had tons of volunteers, and by 7 a.m., we had people removing trees from homes.”
Stephens said the response from the congregations and the community has been incredible.
“Ruston is a growing college town with new business development and this sort-of hip vibe,” she explained, “but it also has this rural aspect, so we had a lot of young people ready to help, and we also had access to chainsaws, tractors, backhoes, so we were able to get a lot done.”
Rev. Laraine Waughtal, director of the Mission Engagement and Outreach, said Deich and Stephens were exactly the right people to have in place to respond to the tragedy. “Through their leadership, we trained over 100 people to go out and do assessments on homes once the way was cleared by the city,” she said.
Although much of their work involves training volunteers, setting up databases, coordinating schedules and supplies and working with local government officials, Deich never loses sight of his real mission.
“Our primary response is to be the presence of Christ,” he explained. “The most important thing we do is to let people know they’re not alone, that we will be at their side, to get them through this.”
On Sunday, both Trinity and Grace were full of worshippers trying to get through the events of the past several days. Stephens said she gave a timely sermon on John Wesley’s 3 rules: Do no harm, do good, stay in love with God.
“We’re capable of this kind of good all the time,” she said. “It’s transformative.”
"It is well with my soul..."
About a mile away at Grace, where 14 church members suffered damage or loss of their homes, congregants gathered for the Sunday after Easter.
They were reminded of the story of Horatio G. Spafford, a 19th Century man traveling across the ocean to reunite with his grief-stricken wife after the tragic loss of their four daughters at sea just days earlier. As the ship passed the spot where his daughters had drowned, he was moved to write a poem that was destined to be one of the most beloved hymns of all times.
On Sunday, Deich led them in song:
When peace like a river attendeth my way, When sorrows like sea billows roll, Whatever my lot, those has taught me to say, It is well, it is well with my soul.
“It’s always tough to watch your church family go through these things,” Deich said. “But they have come through. In the worst of times, we’ve seen the best in people.”
Waughtal agreed, saying she has “seen God in this event in so many ways” as volunteers have stepped forward to be the hands and feet of Christ.
“We are still responding with our Early Response teams, through continuing to clean off people's properties, tarping roofs, taking food to families and feeding team members, churches opening their doors for teams to sleep on the floors and more people asking to be trained.”