Joe's Road Trip 2011

Road Trip Day 15: The Loving American

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Katy Steinmetz

Church members participate in the Great Day of Service on September 25, 2011. College Heights Christian Church sends 2,000 volunteers out across Joplin, Mo., to clean streets and do yard work for this annual event.

Joplin, Missouri

There were a thousand people in the worship center at the College Heights Christian Church this morning. A guy with a modified mohawk, white tie and distressed charcoal gray shirt was leading the congregation in rocking songs of praise with the lyrics posted on giant karaoke screens to the left and right of the stage. His name was James Tealy and he had come from Nashville for the occasion. A member of the congregation named Jared Kendall stepped into the baptismal pool, on the right of the stage, and, with a shakey voice, filled with emotion, baptized his beautiful 10-year-old daughter, Sophie.

Jay St. Clair, one of 14 ministers at College Heights, came onto the stage. He was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans and nikes. His pulpit, which he sat upon, was a blue recycling tub filled with household supplies. He didn’t give much of a sermon, just instructions for the work that was about to take place–thousands of people had come to Joplin from all over the country for the church’s eighth annual Great Day of Service. St. Clair said he’d gotten a text message from a buddy earlier that morning. “He’s struggling with this Jesus thing. He wanted to know why Casey Anthony, whom many people think killed her daughter, walked free…and at the same time, Troy Davis, whom many people believe didn’t kill that South Carolina police officer, was executed. What’s Jesus’s answer a broken world where the guilty go unpunished and the innocent suffer? “

“My answer is simple,” St. Clair continued. “It’s the cross. It’s the intersection of justice and mercy. It’s the place where innocence suffered and died so the guilty would have a chance to go free and be saved.”

The message was simple, powerful….but not nearly as powerful as the sight of people of all ages, wearing white t-shirts, gathering up into work teams and spreading out around town to help people who were still suffering from the ravages of the tornado and others who were just suffering because they were poor or infirm or elderly. “We will not make this about doing a job,” St. Clair went on, “Lord, save us from ourselves. We will make this about the people whom we are about to serve.”

Later, St. Clair–a kindly man with pale blue eyes, whose righteousness seemed entirely free of self-righteousness–explained to me that years ago the church had made a mission of serving outside its walls. And after the tornado, the church–which was not damaged–moved more deeply into the community. “Now our church is no longer defined by walls. It exists outside the walls. Our church is the service that we do.”

St. Clair told me that on the night of the tornado, he and his wife were baby-sitting the six children of Jared and Lettie Kendall (the father who had baptized his daughter that morning). “They were having an anniversary dinner at Cheddar’s,” he said, “and they heard about the storm, jumped into the van and headed toward us. But they drove right into the storm, which picked their van up in the air, flung it and it landed right in front of a dead body.”

When the Kendalls had been reunited, St. Clair went out to help with the cleanup at a nearby senior citizens center. “The thing I really remember was how quiet it was,” he said. “There was no panic. People just went right to work. The silence was the common grace of God falling over the community.”

Afterwards, Katy Steinmetz and I went off with one of the work groups. They came from a Baptist church in Morgantown, West Virginia, and set up shop at the corner of 19th street and Murphy Ave. with rakes, brooms, lawn mowers and trimmers. This was an area of modest homes near the path of the tornado (and, I must say, the tornado path still looks something like Hiroshima). There wasn’t much damage but the West Virginians went door to door asking people if there was anything they could do for them. Soon  mowers were growling and leaves were being raked. I stood there watching these people, feeling uncomfortable, unfulfilled. I picked up a broom and started working on the sidewalk, with a fellow named Todd who told me that he and family go on service missions regularly. Last summer, they went to Nicaragua. Todd was a terrific guy. We worked together well. It was good work.