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Jun 01, 2011 | Luke Blount

Putting the Pieces Back Together Begins with the Spirit

Smithville BaptistThe Diocese of Texas spiritual care team spent Memorial Day weekend ministering to tornado survivors in the area around Smithville, Mississippi. Led by diocesan emergency response coordinators, Archdeacon Russ Oechsel and the Rev. Gill Keyworth, the group of seven trained emergency spiritual care workers were able to comfort and listen to survivors who had lost much in recent storms.


A powerful tornado swept through the small town of Smithville on the afternoon of April 27, destroying 127 homes and 14 of 16 businesses. Winds from the tornado registered as an EF5 category, peaking at 205 mph.


The spiritual care team arrived in Tupelo, Miss. on Friday May 27, staying at All Saints Episcopal Church under the care of the rector, the Rev. Paul Stevens. The group slept in classrooms and commuted to Smithville on Saturday and Sunday.


The Diocese of Texas’ spiritual care workers were trained last summer at Camp Allen as part of the diocese’s enhanced effort to prepare for disasters through Texas Episcopal Disaster Relief after Hurricane Ike. The training took place in tandem with Episcopal Relief and Development.


The team originally planned to minister in the streets of Smithville, but there was nobody to be found. Most of the town had been destroyed or damaged.


“The most disheartening thing we saw was that there was nothing,” said Mary Reddick, a member of St. Martin’s, Houston. “There was nothing but slabs in many places.  Some of the people lost their whole block of houses.”


The team decided the best place to talk with people was at the FEMA distribution center, a large warehouse filled with grocery items, diapers, toys, children's car seats, clothing and furniture. Survivors would enter the warehouse and be given one of three classifications. If a homeowner lost everything, they had no limit on what they could take.


The spiritual care teams tagged along with the “shoppers” and volunteers who helped survivors gather supplies. As the survivors gathered and shopped, the team members were able to listen to their stories and provide counseling.


“We let them tell their stories,” Oechsel said. “They were able to begin to process their grief. I spoke to one woman who came out of a shelter after the storm and found two children with pieces of trees impaled in them. Nobody should see stuff like that. Fortunately, the kids survived.”


Most of the townspeople were staying with relatives or friends out of town, and had no way of connecting other than meeting by chance at the distribution center. With school ending, there were few places to experience the sense of community. At the distribution center, Smithville residents gathered and shared their survival stories.



“It was pretty intense in a lot of ways,” Reddick said. “The people who made it through the tornado were in storm shelters or an enclosed space. One diner owner saw an alert on the TV when he came home and called his restaurant, ordering everyone into the walk-in freezer. When the sounds and wind stopped, they opened up the freezer and the restaurant was gone. The only thing that was left was a stud in the corner and the walk-in freezer.”


On Sunday, half of the spiritual care team spent the day at an out of town meeting place for Smithville Baptist Church. The tornado had destroyed the original church building. Three spiritual care workers stood in the parking lot and counseled survivors. Pastor Wes White was working to help his congregation deal with the devastating effects of the storm.


“We learned that Brother Wes shares our concern that many of his congregation who lost their homes have not begun to process that loss yet,” Oechsel said. “So much work from a spiritual care perspective remains.  He has a plan for that which sounds very appropriate.”


The rest of the team continued to counsel the townspeople at the distribution center as well as in nearby Tupelo.


“Everyone was absolutely uplifted that somebody would drive all the way from Texas to show they cared and wanted to help,” Reddick said. “Even if we had never lifted a finger or talked to anybody, that seemed to be huge.”


Members of the spiritual care team met many people who had lost almost everything, and the magnitude of the disaster was hard to comprehend.


“You are just kind of awestruck,” Reddick said. “They had almost no warning.”


Some of the homeowners were planning to rebuild and some were leaving, but many were not ready to make any decisions. Yet, among all the destruction, there were signs of hope. One diner owner had committed to rebuilding his restaurant, and the FEMA distribution center was helping people get back on track.


For Reddick, however, there was one image that will always stick in her mind. “There was one destroyed house that had a huge professional-looking banner that said ‘The Lord giveth. The Lord hath taken away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.’”


Oechsel and Keyworth are now in Alabama for a meeting with Episcopal Relief and Development’s US Disaster Program and southern diocesan emergency response coordinators for the launch of hurricane season. Ideas about how to help tornado- ravaged areas of Alabama and Missouri are also being considered.


St. Luke’s on the Lake, Austin, has also been on the forefront of working with the survivors in Alabama and Mississippi. Visit their website at to learn more about how to help.