It was Friday, December 10th, 2021. We were all set to host a Christmas party for the board of elders at our home here in Paducah. My wife and I had heard that the conditions would be ripe for a tornado. Should we cancel the Christmas party? We figured that this time would be like so many other times we had heard of tornado conditions. No need to cancel.
So we went ahead, and after the final guests left we cleaned up the place and put the kids to bed. Then we sat there on the couch listening to the weathermen tracking the path of the tornado. On the screen we could see an angry looking red blob that they were calling the “debris ball.” Just a blip on the screen but in reality, “a mile wide.” We heard how they said they had never seen anything this big before. It was clear that it was going to be about 30 miles south of Paducah, which was a relief. But that meant it was passing right through Mayfield and from there further east and north along the I-69 corridor.
I quickly thought through my members who lived along that path. I hurriedly sent messages to those whose numbers were in my phone. Some quickly responded that they were okay. Others said they were huddled in basements and closets, praying that the Lord would protect them.
Thankfully all of our members in the path were protected through the storm. Two had damage to their homes; one of which was quite significant. But no harm was done to their bodies. Not all were so fortunate. It is likely that by now you have seen many images of that damage.
The next morning I was at a loss. What can I do? What can we at St. Paul do? It is a very humbling thing to realize that there are times when nothing much can be done. So we turned to the Lord in prayer, trusting that in Him there is no lack and no shadow of change. “Cast your burdens on the Lord for He cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:7)
Sunday morning brought more of the same question: What can be done? And again we experienced something of that humbling as there was no clear answer. We used the first 20 minutes or so of our Bible Study time to check in and hear if anyone had family or friends in trouble. That night we were able to put together an impromptu potluck for survivors who were now homeless and other first responders who were being sheltered at a local Baptist church. They told us they needed food for 100, but in Lutheran potluck lingo that translated into enough for 300.
Then on Monday I got a phone call from President Paavola. He told me that he and Ross Johnson, the director of the Synod’s Disaster Response wanted to assess the situation with me and see if St. Paul could be a possible host site for LCMS volunteers. I didn’t know what all that entailed but I quickly agreed. What a relief to have someone who had done this before and who maybe could answer our question.
That afternoon a rough sketch of a plan came together. We would host trained volunteers from across Synod who would also bring heavy equipment to show mercy to those who were suffering. We quickly assembled a four person committee to help prepare to receive all these visitors but we had no experience with the Lutheran Early Response Team (LERT) or Lutheran Church Charities (LCC). We didn’t know if we would need to host them in our homes, to provide cots and bedding, or how we were going to feed everyone. What had we gotten ourselves into?
In my mind I figured this would all take a while. After all, we were approaching Christmas and New Year’s, and surely no one would come to Paducah, Kentucky at this time of year to help out, right?
Thankfully I was wrong! In no time our congregation resembled Bethlehem at that first Christmas. No room in the inn! By that Sunday, Dec. 19th we had all kinds of people from all kinds of places setting up cots and inflatable mattresses. It looked like a church lock-in, but with grown-ups. Jan Simko from Shepherd of the Hills in Crossville, TN came as the District Disaster Relief Coordinator (DDRC) along with her Pastor, Andrew Abraham, who made assessments and pastoral visits with her. Brian Mead from the Kansas District helped Jan learn the ropes as she was baptized by fire (this was her first disaster response).
That Sunday morning we had about 30 men wearing highlighter yellow volunteer shirts belting out the liturgy with us and receiving Holy Communion alongside our members. Just as if they were right at home. Just as if they were of one body with us… because we are.. “And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; or if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.” (1 Cor. 12:26).
United in faith we are also one in witness and in mercy. Those first few days the crews were largely getting to know the area and passing out cards with contact information. Slowly but surely we started getting calls at the church. “These people connected to your church who called themselves Lutherans said they could help us. Is this real? They have equipment? And they’ll do it for free? Ok, well, sign me up.” With each house that was shown mercy a neighbor or two saw and inquired and got added to the list. The local sheriffs and FEMA people started making referrals to the Lutheran team as well. And always, in every case, the men and women who showed mercy were able to point the survivors to the hope of Jesus Christ and the local congregation where they could receive His mercy in the communion of saints.
As of writing this the total number of homes cleared is 62. We will still be hosting volunteers through the end of this week, with Jan Simko saying that it is very likely that LERT will set up weekend opportunities for service in the coming months. Great work has begun, but it is by no means finished.
What can we do? That question still hangs in the air here. 8 of our members were able to go through the LERT basic training which gives us a good base of understanding and ideas for future projects. Removing tree limbs and debris is certainly important. But removal will eventually give way to rebuilding. And it is that work that will last much longer. So many congregations and individuals have contributed either directly to our congregation or to the Mid-South District’s disaster relief fund. An initial $10,000 were used to purchase gift cards for Lowe’s, Walmart, and Amazon. We passed out a number of these in the week before Christmas.
The outpouring of generosity and love have been truly amazing to behold. On behalf of our congregation here in far western Kentucky and also the surrounding counties I want to thank everyone who has helped. Our congregation has had the privilege of both receiving your encouragement and being able to pass that Christian charity on to our hurting neighbors. What a great testament to our life together in Christ that we are able to respond with wisdom, time, energy, and financial aid to show mercy to those who need it.
— Rev. David R. Appold,
St. Paul Lutheran Church (Paducah)
For more information on volunteering contact Jan Simko
Disaster Relief Fund—Donations directed to this fund will be used for relief efforts in the tornado-ravaged communities. To contribute to this fund, you may make a gift online or by check payable to the Mid-South District Office / 1675 Wynne Road / Cordova TN 38016. Please note “Disaster Relief Fund” on any gifts sent by check. When donating online, please designate your gift as “restricted” for the Disaster Relief Fund.