May 22, 2011, began as a special Sunday at Unity of Joplin, Mo. During the 11:00 a.m. service, a new stained glass window commemorating the founders of the church in Joplin, was dedicated. It had been installed the previous day. Children went to their classrooms, prayers were prayed and songs were sung. Little did anyone dream, that by 6:00 p.m. Sunday night, Unity of Joplin and over one-third of the city of Joplin would lie in ruins.
Many of the families in the congregation either completely lost their homes or sustained damage. Thankfully, none were among the 161 people who died in the storm, although several were injured. One of the very few items to survive the direct hit the Unity church took from the EF5 tornado was the stained glass window. It was found under the rubble, damaged but salvageable. Today, it graces Unity’s new sign.
One of the members, Marilyn Wylie, was a teacher, and on the next Sunday the congregation met in her classroom. By that time, Unity Worldwide Ministries had gotten the word out, and ministers and others had come to Joplin to help.
That next Sunday, emotions were high, yet the Unity family was together. Among them, Ann Leach—who had ridden out the destruction of her home in a closet, Shelly Jones—who was injured as she shielded her two sons with her body, and people singing and praying with bandages and casts—some still not knowing where they were going to live or work. They all felt a presence, an assurance, that they were surrounded by love. There were tears of sadness over loss, and tears of relief; Unity was alive! Rev Kelly Isola came down that Sunday and was moved to serve as an interim minister and help with the healing and recovery.
Over the following weeks and months there was clean up to do. Rubble was combed for salvageable items. Donations of hymnals and the basics began to pour in. Trucks began hauling away the debris. Chainsaws roared into life. Insurance claims were filed. Thousands of volunteers of all ages from all corners of the world began to arrive.
The congregation of Unity of Joplin began to weigh their options: “Should we rebuild or move?” The 20th Street building had been Unity’s home for many years. Everyone felt the loss, yet everyone I talked with has said that even in the midst of their grief, they “felt” something greater was about to emerge. No one had any idea of what it would be. Through it all, in Unity and in the community, the knowledge that “all things work together for good for those who believe in God” was becoming evident.
Seek and You Shall Find
Because of the incredible generosity of Unity ministries worldwide, the decision was made to seek out a new home. Months of searching went by and finally the former Women’s Club of Joplin was purchased near downtown. The building had been constructed as a Baptist church in 1911. In 1924 it was sold to the Women’s Club of Joplin. By the late 1980s women’s clubs were no longer popular and the building was sold. It sat empty and neglected until Unity of Joplin purchased it in January 2012.
The congregation has been through all the usual struggles that come with restoring a very run-down historic building. Decisions were made based on emotion, largely enthusiasm, but without thorough investigation. A lot across from the new site was purchased containing a condemned house. The idea was to tear it down and put in a parking lot. What no one was aware of was that because this was in the historic district of Joplin, the city had strict limits on what could be done! There was no investigation prior to the purchase and today, the lot sits empty.
Windows were purchased by some members while others were purchasing doors for the same location in the building! Feelings were hurt, animosities arose. A large part of the healing has been about coming to an understanding that no one had ever gone through an experience like this in Joplin, and everyone was truly doing what they thought was for the best. It has been a powerful lesson about forgiveness. Some of those wounds are still healing.
However, Spirit is always at work! In the midst of a heated discussion about the building at a meeting, Rev Kelly spoke up and said, “Well, you were never the building!” Janell Sitton-Coats took that statement and wrote what would become the Unity of Joplin theme song “We Were Never a Building.” That awareness is in our consciousness now as we are realizing that this building, as beautiful as it is, will not meet our long-term needs. There is not enough room for a thriving YFM program, bookstore and other programs. Nonetheless, we have restored a treasure for our community and we know that when the time arrives to seek a larger facility, we will find the perfect place.
Healing into Our Greatness
Beyond the building, there were challenges around personalities and lingering emotions from the tornado itself. Some are still healing from physical injuries, emotional scars, grief, anxiety and PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) which surfaces especially when weather threatens. But there were miracles in the midst of the experience.
With the facility needs met, we were poised to grow into a presence never seen before in Joplin. The tornado had an effect no one could have predicted—it created a spiritual awakening in what had been an ultra-conservative, traditional Christian community. Suddenly people of different faiths were working side by side and discovering they had more in common than they had differences. A perfect opportunity for Spirit to work through Unity!
Today, Unity of Joplin is committed to being a leader in co-creating a world that works for all in southwest Missouri. We have reached out into the community, taking an active role in the life of Joplin and the surrounding area. We are active participants in the Joplin Area Ministerial Alliance, which includes leaders from many paths. We are sponsoring a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) project for Joplin, and we are a voice for equality and acceptance in southwest Missouri. (We are still the only church that will perform same-sex weddings.)
And we are blessed to be a charter community on a local television show called Faith in Our Hometown. On the show, various ministers and leaders from different faiths discuss local issues from the viewpoint of our respective paths, and explore our differences and our similarities with the intention of modeling respect and understanding for each other’s beliefs.
In two days from my writing this, we will observe the fifth anniversary of the tornado. We will sing, “We Were Never a Building.” There will be tears of grief, and tears of joy. For Unity of Joplin is alive and serving, as we co-create a world that works for all in the four-state area. The rebirth of the city and Unity of Joplin is more than a rebirth of buildings or congregations. It is the rebirth of a consciousness of Oneness, understanding and most of all, the assurance of the presence of God in all experiences.