Westminster (Hattiesburg, Miss.) looks to bright future with new additions

wm2By Emily Ham Price

The future of Westminster Presbyterian Church looks bright to the Rev. Steve Ramp — and it’s not because of the church’s additional windows and skylights.

A year and a half after an EF4 tornado left Westminster devastated and broken, Ramp said the Hattiesburg church is on the mend, and he hopes his congregation can return to its updated church home by Christmas Eve.

“We’ve had such strong support from the community in rebuilding,” he said. “When this gets rebuilt, this isn’t just going to be a victory for Presbyterians — this is going to be a victory for the entire Hattiesburg community.”

wm1Ramp said early on, Westminster’s congregation decided to look for a silver lining after the storm and found it in the form of structural changes, additions and repairs that could be made while recovering from the tornado.

“Ironically, the tornado has given us the opportunity to do what we never could have done,” he said. “We were talking about expanding and remodeling, and we’ve had to do an extreme makeover. This is going to be a much better final product.”


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Arkansas tornado victim’s message of hope goes viral


April Smith’s injuries include two broken legs and a fractured pelvis. (Jessica Sowards)

By Jason Sickles

The focus of Jessica Sowards’ portraits are usually warm fuzzies — baby bumps, birthdays and other family milestones.

So it was with great irony and pain this week that the Arkansas photographer snapped the saddest image her lens has ever captured.

The photo is of her close friend April Smith lying in a hospital bed. Smith’s face is swollen and battered. Two broken legs and a fractured pelvis will keep her from walking for months.

But even worse, the tornado also claimed the lives of her two children, 9-year-old Cameron and 7-year-old Tyler.

The whole family, along with husband and dad Daniel Smith, were beneath a mattress in a bathtub last Sunday evening (April 27) when the violent twister obliterated their Vilonia, Ark., home. Daniel suffered head trauma and is recovering at a separate Little Rock hospital from his wife. …

… Before leaving, Sowards asked Smith, 28, if she wanted her to take her photo in case she someday wanted to go public with how she persevered. The grieving mother agreed with one stipulation.

“Show them now,” Smith said from her hospital bed. “Show them what my God can overcome. Show them now.”


Read the original blog: The Cheerleader

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April 28 Prayer alert for storm victims

Please join us in praying for all those affected by the devastating storms that swept through Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri and Arkansas on Sunday night and through Mississippi and Tennessee on Monday.  Foremost in our prayers are the families and friends of the 15 people who lost their lives in the Arkansas tornado. Pray for the people of Faulkner County, where entire neighborhoods in the towns of Vilonia and Mayflower have been leveled.

If you have information about individuals and congregations affected – and those on the front line of response – please let us know. May God’s grace descend in all sufficient measure for the living of these days.

We pray in advance for all those yet in the path of the storm: may God’s merciful hedge of protection be around each of us and all of us. And may we find the faith to praise Him in the storm … .




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What are you planning for your summer vacation? How about a service camp?

text box for joplin articleWhat are your summer plans — and the plans for your church youth and young adults? Consider a service camp in Joplin, Mo.

Nearly three years after a tornado devastated the community, a Presbyterian church has revamped itself from “emergency outpost” that hosted thousands of volunteers in the immediate aftermath of the 2011 tornado into a vision called “The Joplin Promise.”

The Joplin Promise seeks to serve people on both sides of the poverty line by connecting teens, young adults and mature Christians from across the country with a community that lives in a far different reality.  In a week this summer in Joplin you can:

  • do construction;
  • mentor a child;
  • learn what the Bible says about the faithful responses to poverty; and
  • be transformed, even as you are used as an agent of transformation.

To understand The Joplin Promise you have to revisit the Joplin nightmare.

Imagine you’re the pastor of a small church on the edge of a neighborhood where 8,000 families lost their homes in an instant. Now imagine that the vast majority of those people are recipients of government entitlement programs including food stamps and welfare. They have no boot straps to pull up and the poverty cycle in which they are trapped is now generational.

What do you do?

You pray ardently, you meet immediate needs, you study the Biblical response to poverty and you construct ministries that bring people into meaningful contact with one another to alleviate both the crisis and the chronic conditions.

That’s exactly what pastor Cliff Mansley and the New Creation Church are doing in Joplin.

Following the devastating and deadly tornado that ravaged Joplin on Sunday, May 22, 2011, God began pouring out every spiritual and physical resource necessary for the accomplishing of His redemptive will. Within days the New Creation Church was designated a distribution center for Federal Aid in a community where 80 percent of the people were living below the U.S. poverty line before the tornado hit.

Since the storm, the church has hosted thousands of volunteers from across the country who came to help the people of Joplin rebuild physically and spiritually. Now those teams are largely gone, but the needs of the people — especially the children — are not.

When I first talked with Cliff Mansley three days after the tornado he already knew that God intended to use the New Creation new church development as an outpost of resurrection hope. Three years later there is evidence of God’s power at work.

Prior to the tornado New Creation had already embraced the children of the projects surrounding the church’s location. Following the twister they simply opened wide their doors and in streamed hundreds of needy children.

The church launched “KidsQuest” providing supervised tutoring, the arts, Bible and activities each day from 3-6 p.m. Mansley says, “The purpose of KidsQuest is to provide students with a safe environment to where they can explore, discover and use their gifts and talents. Our aim is spiritual transformation, helping them improve academic performance, giving them opportunities for creative expression, helping them develop good character and become leaders. All of it is unto the goal of presenting them mature in Christ.”

Mansley also shared that “these kids have pretty difficult lives. Eighty percent of them were living below the federal poverty line prior to the storm. Now all of them are. All of their families are on government assistance of one kind or another. Few of them have dads in their homes. And all of them experienced the trauma of the tornado and its aftermath.”

Mansley notes that an important part of KidsQuest is the full dinner that is served every day in addition to the healthy snack kids receive upon arrival. He also notes that it wouldn’t work without transportation. So, volunteer drivers provide transportation in their aging shuttles to KidsQuest from every school in the area that has four or more kids participating in the program.

Here’s where you come in. Remember all those commitments you’ve made over the years over all those children at their baptism?  Joplin is an opportunity to make good on those commitments. You can tangibly demonstrate the grace and truth of the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the life of the children there.


Contact info:, 417-782-8200, 1831 South Conner Avenue, Joplin, MO 64804.

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Inner progress: Westminster holds first communion in restored sanctuary

westminsterBy Ellen Ciurczak

More than 100 members of Westminster Presbyterian returned Sunday to the church damaged in the Feb. 10 tornado to take communion and celebrate the rebuilding of their place of worship.

The restored sanctuary still had no altar, pews or flooring, but its stained glass windows glowed with light, as the bread and wine were passed around the circle.

“It’s a beautiful experience,” said parishoner Kay Moore, who like the others at the church has been attending services at Parkway Heights United Methodist Church ever since the tornado struck.

“It’s very poignant that we’re almost a year in time to the tornado,” she said. “It’s wonderful that we were able to preserve the heart of this church — the sanctuary.

“I feel the presence of God here.”

Pastor Steve Ramp had invited members of the congregation to take a tour of the church to see the progress that had been made in the year since the tornado.

“The first Sunday after the tornado we came back and we got in a circle and I said a prayer,” he said. “This is the first time we’ve been back since then.”


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Westminster Presbyterian Church in Hattiesburg rebuilds after tornado



By Emily Ham Price

Sitting at 115 N. 25th Ave. for more than 60 years, Westminster Presbyterian Church has been full of laughter, singing, praising and rejoicing.

But four months after an EF4 tornado tore through Hattiesburg, leaving the church battered and torn, it now is filled with the sounds of hammers, saws, cranes and construction workers.

The Rev. Steve Ramp said while he watches his church begin its reconstructive journey, he can still remember the destruction the Feb. 10 tornado left behind.

“It was so devastating at first to see the roof blown off and the bricks in the street,” Ramp said. “It was overwhelming, really.”

With Larry Albert acting as the project’s architect and Butch Nobles as the general contractor, Ramp said he and his congregation are excited to see the church restored to its former glory.

“It’s beginning to look like it’s feasible, and like it’s coming together,” Ramp said. “It’s neat to see (construction crews) preserving and enhancing what is here.”

Nobles said the destruction done to Westminster Presbyterian affected him on a personal level.

“I was emotionally in shock. We are also members of Westminster. (My wife) Cindy and I were married by the former pastor and our two daughters were baptized in the sanctuary. That was also why it was a difficult decision to take on this project, it is our close family,” he said. “Nobles Contracting was also the general contractor on the USM fence and landscape project, so we had tornado encounters twice.”


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Survey: People turn to God after disaster

sufferingBy David Roach

NASHVILLE (BP) — When natural disasters occur, most Americans take increased interest in God and donate to relief agencies — and they trust faith-based agencies more than their secular counterparts. A third also believe prayer can avert natural disasters.

Those are among the findings of a LifeWay Research survey conducted days after an historic EF5 tornado devastated parts of Oklahoma May 20, killing two dozen people and causing billions of dollars in damages.

According to the study, commissioned by LifeWay’s Bible Studies for Life curriculum, a third of Americans increase their trust in God during times of suffering. In response to the question, “How do you feel about God when suffering occurs that appears unfair?” the most common response is “I trust God more” (33 percent). Other responses include:

— “I am confused about God” (25 percent).

— “I don’t think about God in these situations” (16 percent).

— “I wonder if God cares” (11 percent).

— “I doubt God exists” (7 percent).

— “I am angry toward God” (5 percent).

— “I am resentful toward God” (3 percent).

“Disasters, particularly natural disasters, perplex all of us,” said Ed Stetzer, president of LifeWay Research. “While some call them ‘acts of God,’ others question why a good and loving God would do such a thing.
The fact is, God does not give us all the answers.

“But, as Christians, we believe that God gives us Himself — and that is why we have faith,” Stetzer said. “Faith is believing God when you don’t have all the answers. But disasters test that faith — some people draw closer to God, some pull away.”

LifeWay reported Southerners, frequent church attendees and those without a college degree are likely to trust God more during disasters, while younger Americans are more likely to doubt God exists.


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In deeply religious Oklahoma, prayer brings solace after tornado

okla1By Alice Mannette

(Reuters) – In deeply religious Moore, Oklahoma, God and prayer are frequently mentioned as sources of strength for residents reeling from the fourth damaging tornado in 15 years.

“My family and God is what’s helping us through this,” said Vickie Myers, 39, whose husband Brent, a disabled military veteran, is now recovering after he was pulled unconscious from the rubble of their home on Monday.

The tornado was the strongest in the United States in nearly two years and devastated large swaths of Moore, a suburb of Oklahoma City, which was hit by another huge tornado in 1999. Smaller tornadoes hit the area in 1998 and 2003.

The tornado killed 24 people on Monday (May 20), a remarkably small number considering the ferocity of the storm, officials said, and at least 377 were injured.

Oklahoma is among the states of the so-called “Bible Belt” where church attendance is highest. A Gallup survey published in 2012 found that 77 percent of people in Oklahoma described themselves as strongly or moderately religious – the only state outside the southern region of the country among the 10 most religious states.



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Christian aid pouring in for victims of Oklahoma tornado

aid1By Timothy Fowler

Christian aid groups and churches have moved in to help after the devastating tornado that killed at least 24 people and injured scores of others in Oklahoma.

The tornado ripped through the Oklahoma City suburbs Monday with 200 mph winds. Especially hard hit was the town of Moore.

The twister demolished buildings over a wide area and flattened elementary schools.

In one of the schools, Plaza Towers Elementary, the tornado killed seven of the nine children .

The storm was massive. According to CNN, it was a mile wide and 17 miles long at one point.

With search and rescue efforts continuing for missing survivors, humanitarian agency Church World Service said it was providing relief supplies immediately with a focus on helping the area to recover in the long term.

CWS Emergency Response Specialists moved into the area and were making contact with partners in affected areas to assess immediate and longer-term needs.


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More tragedy in Moore as tornado rips through city

tornado1Search and rescue teams continue to comb through rubble in Oklahoma after a powerful tornado ripped through the state, leaving death and destruction in its wake.

It is confirmed that at least 24 people lost their lives in the deadliest tornado to strike in the United States since the twister that leveled Joplin, Mo., claimed 161 lives in 2011. Nine of those killed in the May 20 disaster were children, according to the Oklahoma state medical examiner’s office.

The death toll is down from an initial figure of 51. A spokesperson for the medical examiner’s office cautioned that the death toll could rise by as many as 40 additional fatalities, but Moore Mayor Glenn Lewis told CNN that he doesn’t expect the death toll will rise past 24 as the rescue operation shifts into a recovery mode.

More than 230 people have been treated at hospitals for injuries sustained in the tornado, and more than 100 have been pulled alive out of the debris.

The twister touched down just after 3 p.m.  (CST) and churned its way through the city of Moore, located in Cleveland County just south of Oklahoma City along Interstate 35 in the central part of the state.

“It really devastated an area nearly 20 miles in length,” said the Rev. Aaron Carland, executive presbyter for Indian Nations Presbytery. “That area is kind of like a war zone. It really is devastated. It did not wipe out all of Moore, but it did level a huge area.”

tornado2Carland said a number of people still are unaccounted for as search teams continue sweeps of debris and rubble fields that once were homes or businesses. He noted the overall somberness of the situation, made more difficult by the deaths of so many children.

“The really sad thing is the tremendous loss of life, especially because quite a few of those fatalities were children,” he said.

President Barack Obama declared a major disaster area in Oklahoma, ordering federal aid to supplement state and local efforts in Moore.

“The people of Moore should know that their country will remain on the ground, there for them, beside them, as long as it takes,” Obama said at the White House.

“For all those who’ve been affected, we recognize that you face a long road ahead. In some cases, there will be enormous grief that has to be absorbed. But you will not travel that path alone,” Obama added.

Neighborhoods along the tornado’s path were ripped apart, power lines were taken down, and gas lines ruptured. Vehicles were hurled from one location to another as the powerful twister toppled walls and ripped roofs from structures in its path. CNN reported that about 2,400 homes were damaged in Moore and Oklahoma City. Insurance claims are expected to top $1 billion.

Preliminary reports indicated the tornado – measured 1.3 miles wide as it churned through Moore – stayed on the ground for 40 minutes and initially was classified as an EF4 by the National Weather Service. An EF4 designation is the second most powerful category of tornado on the Enhanced Fujita Scale, used to determine the severity of twisters.

The NWS later determined that the tornado, which also generated baseball-sized hail, reached peak wind speeds up to 210 mph, making it an EF5 twister, the most powerful category of tornado classification.

tornado3The tornado struck a pair of schools in Moore, completely destroying Plaza Towers Elementary School and nearly leveling nearby Briarwood Elementary School. Plaza Towers was reduced to a pile of mangled steel and concrete. Gaping holes in the walls showed the inside of the Briarwood building, which also had cars hurled by the storm’s ferocity lodged in the walls.

The direct hit suffered by Plaza Towers killed seven children and left rescue workers combing through piles of rubble up to 10 feet high to find others who may be trapped under it. Many other students were not harmed when the building collapsed and walked out unscathed when rescue workers started removing the debris.

Moore Medical Center, a two-story facility, also took a direct hit from the tornado, reducing it to a single level that is no longer able to be occupied.

In addition to help from many others, Presbyterian relief efforts have started in Moore. Indian Nations Presbytery requested a team from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA) to help provide aid to those affected by the tragedy and assess the next steps to be taken while providing a witness of the Presbyterian Church (USA) during a time of uncertainty. PDA teams started arriving Tuesday and will begin their efforts as Oklahoma’s emergency response begins to wind down.

“This will be a long recovery,” Carland said in a call with PDA officials. “This is so much worse than the tornado that hit Moore in 2003. The destruction is just overwhelming. We’re here, and we’re here for the long haul.”

She continued, “People are pulling together. It’s not the first such event nor will it be the last, unfortunately.” PDA assures the people of Moore, “We will continue to be here for those who need us.”

That 2003 tornado, while destructive, did not result in any deaths though it did cause dozens of injuries and destroyed a Presbyterian church in the city.

First Presbyterian Church in Oklahoma City has established a fund for tornado disaster assistance in Moore. The church is accepting monetary donations and will be distributing those locally to help people affected by the disaster.

The Rev. Dr. Matt Meinke, FPC-Oklahoma City associate pastor, said the church also is trying to provide assistance by organizing a blood drive, and local clergy are coordinating efforts to offer chaplain services for those impacted by the tornado, as well as memorial services for those who perished in the tragedy.

In commemoration of the two-year anniversary of the deadliest tornado to strike the United States in nearly 60 years, New Creation Church, a congregation of the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) in Joplin, Mo., will send a response team to Moore with a relief trailer of supplies this week, and will accept supplies and cash contributions as part of future relief efforts.

For many residents of Moore, there was an eerie feeling of déjà vu Monday as they experienced yet another deadly force of nature.

A destructive tornado leveled the city 14 years ago. On May 3, 1999, an EF5 twister with wind speeds that reached more than 300 miles per hour, ripped through the city, covering a distance of 18 miles and killing 41 people. That also was the third costliest tornado ever in the United States, causing more than a billion dollars in damage. Only the Joplin and Tuscaloosa, Ala., tornadoes in 2011 were more costly.

Many people affected by Monday’s tornado also lost everything 14 years ago.

“We have people who have had their homes destroyed for the second time,” Meinke said. “They are used to clinging to the Lord and are very resilient. The question they ask is, ‘What’s next?’ They feel they have to move on with what is important, and here that is community and togetherness. We know God is walking through this with us and will not leave us in times like this.”

Meinke said even in a time of trial and tribulation, God’s spirit is ever-present among those dealing with the tornado’s aftermath.

“We’re used to this kind of craziness; it’s part of living in this extreme weather region,” Meinke said. “But God permeates this whole community. We feel Him in the midst of tragedy and trauma. There’s never a question about whether God is with us.”

The area also is not far from the infamous Oklahoma City bombing at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building that killed 168 people in 1995.

Monday’s deadly twister in Moore came after the Midwest was pummeled by tornadic activity over the weekend. Additional tornadoes were reported in Iowa and Kansas, with warnings issued for Texas, Arkansas and Missouri, in addition to the states already affected by twisters.

Two men were killed in a tornado that struck Shawnee May 19, and another 40 people were injured. Just last week six people died when tornadoes twisted through north Texas.

People wanting to make financial contributions to assist the relief effort in Moore, Okla., can do so through FPC-Oklahoma City, New Creation Church, Indian Nations Presbytery or the American Red Cross.

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