Out-of-state volunteers help with a Baptist furniture ministry in Oklahoma City after nearby communities were hit by twisters in May 2013. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)
Out-of-state volunteers help with a Baptist furniture ministry in Oklahoma City after nearby communities were hit by twisters in May 2013. (Jeff Brumley/ABPnews/Herald)

A year later, those impacted by Okla. twisters grateful for spirit of unity

The May 2013 tornadoes that ravaged the state had a silver lining, Baptist leaders say: Uniting Christians regardless of denomination.

By Jeff Brumley

It’s natural for people to ask where God was when a wave of tornadoes killed nearly 50 people in Oklahoma in May 2013, pastors say.

That was also the topic of a documentary that premiered May 16 in Moore, Okla., where more than 20 died in a massive twister on May 20, 2013.

A year ago today, Oklahomans were digging out from under the wreckage, searching for survivors and mourning the dead — and yet more killer storms were to come.

“Where was he during those events?” asked Mitch Randall, the senior pastor at NorthHaven Church, a Baptist congregation in Norman, Okla. “God was nearby doing everything he could to save lives, to bring comfort and peace to those who were in the middle of this.”

mitchrandallMUGBut Randall and other Baptist leaders say God was also seen in the aftermath of the storms. It was in the twisters’ wakes that God’s hand was clearly bringing together people of different denominations and faiths to love their neighbors as themselves, they maintain.

“After the initial shock, you began to see something greater emerge from the destruction, and that was the resolve of this community coming together and working together to help their neighbors where they could,” said Randall.

‘An act of God’

Seeing the carnage from just a few miles away in Oklahoma City, Tom Ogburn, then-pastor of First Baptist Church, said communities and religious groups from around the region stepped up practically as one entity to help those crushed by the tornadoes that ripped through Shawnee, Moore and other towns May 19-31.

Each church and faith group took on different roles. First Baptist, Oklahoma City, took on a massive furniture warehousing and distribution operation ministry that served thousands. Other congregations and ministries got into feeding, housing and clothing distribution.

“Where I saw God is that the church rose together beyond organizational and denominational boundaries like I had never seen before,” said Ogburn, now pastor at First Baptist Church in Knoxville, Tenn. “Christian volunteers stepped up by the thousands.”

TomOgburnMUGJust as significant, he added, is that the faith which cooperated in the aftermath of the 2013 twisters continues to do so today — helping both victims from those and later storms and the needy in general.

Ogburn said he saw nothing like that in his first nine years in Oklahoma City, a period when he says churches tended to operate in isolation or in pockets of ministries.

“Now there are networks across denominational boundaries that choose to do ministry together,” he said. “That is nothing short of an act of God.”

‘Wonderful to see’

God’s influence in the twisters was almost immediately clear from Tommy Deal’s perspective at the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship in Atlanta.

“The silver lining that I recall is how each of the churches immediately began to reach out and help their own — without any question of who’s doing what or permission from anyone,” said Deal, the Fellowship’s national disaster response coordinator.

The quick and hard work of local Fellowship and other congregations made it much easier hours and days later for CBF to begin marshalling its resources for short-term and long-range disaster response.

tommydeal“It was wonderful to see that and then to try to come alongside of them and to help and resource them in what they were already doing.”

Also inspiring, Deal said, was how different state and denominational groups, including the Baptist General Convention of Texas, hosted massive volunteer efforts like “Loving Oklahoma” the following June. In fact, individuals and church groups continue to visit Moore, Norman and other locations to help with rebuilding and reconstruction.

“People have been able to use their gifts in ways they had not been tested before in a larger scheme of recovery and response,” Deal said.

‘It’s just remarkable’

On the ground in Oklahoma last May, it seemed just as wonderful to see national organizations at work on behalf of the storm victims, said Steve Graham, coordinator of CBF of Oklahoma.

Deal called Graham the day following the first twister to ask if he was needed in Oklahoma. The answer was yes.

“I’m still amazed,” Graham said. “He was there by that afternoon.”

oklahomaAnniv2Then Deal scheduled a conference call with some 30 CBF officials with disaster relief expertise across the U.S. and around the world.

“The encouragement of their support in thought and prayer I found to be pretty astonishing,” Graham said.

Another major development was donation of funds from CBF of Georgia to finance a disaster relief intern in Oklahoma. That person helped schedule visiting volunteers throughout that summer and continues to do that job now.

CBF helped finance a disaster coordinator — Jill Hatcher — for the state, too. She helped channel the flood of support that came in from around the country that summer.

SteveGraham photoThanks to those deadly tornadoes, Graham added, CBF of Oklahoma and its members are much better prepared for disasters that may come their way.

“It’s just remarkable ... because everybody had something to contribute to best practices and best thoughts in how you proceed” in disaster response operations, Graham said.

In Norman, Randall said tragedies are the place where God commonly pulls people out of their routines to reveal their Christ-like natures.

Those also are times when differences in religion, denomination, politics and race melt away.

“When tragedy strikes there’s a common core among us all and there’s a common humanity and we are all willing to help our fellow human beings,” Randall said.