Lexington Theological Seminary alumnae Jill Cameron Michel and Fay Barnes Blevins graduated 12 years apart and pastor separate Disciples of Christ churches in Joplin, Missouri, but in a moment, their lives and ministries intertwined as an entire community found itself in crisis. That day and in the weeks to follow, at least 162 lives would be claimed by the deadliest tornado in U.S. history.
Michel, a 1998 graduate, is the pastor at South Joplin Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). When the tornado struck, she and her family were hosting the SJCC youth at their home. Otherwise, the youth would have been in a second-floor room at the church, which was heavily damaged, while Michel’s home was untouched.
Blevins, a 2010 graduate, is the first female pastor of First Christian Church in Joplin. She was forced to shelter under a bridge as the storm howled past. She later found her husband safe in their apartment, remarkably undamaged despite the chaos around them.
FCC sustained very little damage, while SJCC was devastated. Whole communities were wiped away in the 13-mile path of destruction, and Blevins and Michel set to work immediately helping both parishioners and strangers find shelter, warmth, clothing, and grace.
“It was baptism by fire-or wind,” Blevins says.
Their own grief and shock were helped by the outpouring of support from around the nation. Their LTS family played an important part as current students rallied to coordinate supplies from their home churches, and alums and friends reached out with prayers and gifts as Blevins and Michel worked to help set up distribution centers and minister to victims. Blevins’ church opened its doors to Michel’s, giving them a place to worship while their church is rebuilt. Months later, there is still much work to do.
The aftermath is not over. Winter clothes are being distributed from Blevins’ church this fall. Families continue to struggle with lost loved ones, lost homes, lost jobs. “So much loss,” Blevins says.
Gifts of time, money and prayer are still needed, Michel noted. Volunteers from church groups, readily available in the first weeks, are fewer but just as necessary as rebuilding begins. “This is both a physical journey and an emotional one that we will be on for some time,” Michel said.