Mitch Randall helps unload water donated for victims of the Oklahoma tornado. (Photo by Bryan Partridge)
Mitch Randall helps unload water donated for victims of the Oklahoma tornado. (Photo by Bryan Partridge)

Twister response goes ecumenical

Using relationships created in previous interdenominational projects, Baptist and other churches are joining forces to provide relief and hope to victims of the May 20 tornado in Moore, Okla.

By Jeff Brumley

If the deadly Oklahoma tornado has a silver lining, it may be the ecumenical spirit driving the response and recovery efforts of local churches, local ministers say.

Local Baptist and other pastors describe an ongoing, cooperative effort among the congregations located in and around Moore, Okla., which was devastated by a massive twister on Monday, May 20. It killed at least 24, including nine children.

That effort is the fruit of years of ecumenical cooperation on issues ranging from poverty to foster children, said Tom Ogburn, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Oklahoma City.

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Those efforts forged relationships and friendships that have formed an ecumenical infrastructure, and that, Ogburn added,  “created an environment where we can work together right now.”

Relationships quickened communication among congregations in different parts of town, in turn helping churches avoid duplication of efforts in the immediate hours after the disaster.

“This is why ecumenical matters,” said Chris Moore, associate minister at Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ in Oklahoma City. “This is a time when the church should be church with a big capital ‘C,’ and not with all our denominational small 'c's.”

Moore experienced that on Tuesday morning when he and fellow associate minister Lori Walke drove about 30 minutes to deliver various supplies to NorthHaven Church, a Cooperative Baptist Fellowship congregation located three miles south of the tornado impact zone.

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Moore said he chose that church because of its proximity to the impacted area, because it was serving as a collection point for relief supplies and because he knew its pastor, Mitch Randall, through other CBF Oklahoma connections he’s made over the years.

When Moore and Walke arrived, Randall suggested they deliver the supplies to an Oklahoma University dorm where victims were being housed.

“Mitch didn’t have one hesitation in saying ‘you take this stuff,’ and he didn’t care if we mentioned NorthHaven,” Moore said. “That kind of selfless giving is missing in the church, and this is a nice opportunity to see that again.”

Moore said UCC congregations, who were unscathed by the tornado, are also flocking to the aid of some of the Disciples of Christ churches that were damaged. He said the two denominations have a long history of working together.

At NorthHaven, Randall said the need is too great for congregations to be territorial or theological in their relief efforts. He’s hearing of Presbyterians, Methodists, UCC, Catholic and other denominations coordinating their response.

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Meanwhile, individual churches are doing what they can, right where they are. Once the twister passed, NorthHaven opened its doors to victims and others who needed a place to de-stress, charge or use cell phones and get a bite to eat. It’s also continuing to serve as a distribution center for relief supplies.

“My phones have been blowing up with text messages and calls from people asking what they can do,” Randall said.

When one of those calls asked for transportation for victims in Moore, Randall said he couldn’t help because his church doesn’t have the vans needed. So he called First Baptist, Oklahoma City, which responded with its 50-passenger vans to get victims to the help they needed.

“It’s been a true community effort,” Randall said.

At First Baptist, Ogburn said that kind of effort comes naturally when people of other traditions cease being stereotypes and instead become friends.

“This is about people with broken hearts and broken lives – people we call neighbors,” he said.

Relief efforts are ramping up across the nation. Faith-based disaster-relief groups across the denominational and geographical spectrum are reporting preparations to respond to the disaster site as soon as local authorities and denominational bodies give the all clear.

At CBF, national disaster-response coordinator Tommy Deal issued a statement urging volunteers to hold tight until local assessments are made and requests for help communicated by local churches.

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“CBF Disaster Response Ministries does not have ‘first-responders,’” Deal said. “Anyone attempting to help who is not trained and affiliated with a credible organization will not be welcome.”

He added that unwanted volunteers “put an unnecessary strain on already taxed local resources.” He suggested financial contributions instead.

Deal told ABPnews previously that CBF disaster-response planners, meanwhile, are in close touch with Oklahoma CBF officials to work out plans for long-term recovery efforts.

American Baptist News Service reported Tuesday that Valley Forge-based ABCUSA has released $5,000 in disaster-relief funds while its disaster responders continue to monitor the situation in Oklahoma.

“We pray especially for those families who lost their children in this tragedy,” Roy Medley, general secretary of the denomination, told the news service. “Already, our American Baptist churches are joining with others to organize relief efforts.”

The North American Baptist Fellowship’s disaster-response mailing list reflects how widespread the response is, with state groups from North Carolina, Virginia and Texas are in various stages of preparation.

Texas Baptist Men, deployed Wednesday morning, said its command center has departed for Shawnee, Okla. They are going there to take over from Oklahoma Baptists who were responding to an earlier tornado there.