That’s how long we served overseas. And next month, that will be how long since we moved back to the States.
This year, this month, is also a milestone for Joplin, MO, where we live. It’s the ten-year anniversary of the F5 tornado that devastated our city on May 22. I’ve mentioned the tornado here before, including in last year’s “Coming or Going during Turbulent Times,” but it was in reference to our repatriation. Now I’d like to talk about it in another context: dealing with difficulties that happen “there” when we’re “here.”
My memory’s not really clear on all the details, but I think one of our coworkers contacted us on the morning of May 23 (we were 13 hours ahead) to tell us to go to the Weather Channel online, that a storm had hit Joplin. He, his wife, and kids had also lived in Joplin and had family there, so this was much more than just “news” for them, as well. When we got on the Internet, we saw reports of major destruction. News anchors were saying that one third of the city, home to 50,000, was gone. Surely not! we thought. They showed video of the high school, saying it was “gone” too. But we could see it. There it was! They had to be exaggerating. And yet a storm chaser cried as he stood where houses had once been.
We tried to call our son who was a sophomore at the university in Joplin, but cell service was overwhelmed. He’d been at the house of our forwarding agents nearby when the storm hit. One of them was at work at the hospital but couldn’t get home because the cars in the parking lot were stacked into piles. When we finally got ahold of him, we’d seen more of the damage than he had, because of internet and electricity outages in Joplin. We were hesitant, though, to give many details for fear we were wrong.
As it turned out, the high school was gone, even though many of the walls were still standing. Also destroyed or damaged beyond repair were five other schools, the hospital where our forwarding agent worked, a Wal-Mart, the Home Depot, and Academy Sports. The city of 50,000 suffered a horrific amount of devastation from the rain-rapped, multi-vortex tornado—up to one mile wide and on the ground for 22 miles: 161 people killed, 4,000 residential dwellings destroyed, an estimated 9,200 people displaced, 553 businesses destroyed or severely damaged.
The destruction made the news in Taiwan, though most of our friends there didn’t know that that was our home town. It was a big topic of conversation for us as we gathered updates. We were also preparing for our move back to Joplin in a month. It was quite a stressful time.
One day on the way back from visiting my daughter’s school, as I neared the steps to the MRT, I saw a breeze catch some leaves on the sidewalk and swirl them in a circle. It was a small thing, but it filled me with emotion and I turned around and jogged quickly back to the school. I found the PE teacher, a friend (all of the teachers there were our friends), and told him how hard the last few days have been. He said he hadn’t realized how much it had affected us—neither had I—and he prayed for me and my family and the people of Joplin.
Knowing how much the movement of some scattered leaves had bothered me helped me understand how much, much, much more the people in Joplin were going through. My anxiety couldn’t compare because I wasn’t there. But oh, how I wished I were there, to help and console and listen and share in the stories unfolding. Simply to be present.
It’s hard to be here when bad things happen there. Sometimes it’s while we’re overseas and tragedy hits family and friends back home. Sometimes we’ve returned and tragedy hits family and friends back at our other home. It’s hard when you’re so far away.
Though the tornado had such a large impact, it wasn’t the most difficult distant event for us personally while we were abroad. Two years after our relocation to Taiwan my wife’s brother died suddenly from a massive stroke. Because of schooling and the cost of plane tickets, just my wife and young daughter travelled back for the funeral. Two years later, my father died from pneumonia. I flew back for the funeral by myself. And then, a year before the tornado, my wife’s mother died, also from pneumonia. My wife and oldest son (who was already stateside for college) attended her funeral. All very difficult times for us.
When we got the news that our parents were ill, we hurriedly made plans to travel to be with them, but in both instances, they passed away before we arrived. My father was initially placed on a respirator, but when he seemed to recover, I delayed my planning for the trip. Then he relapsed, went back on the respirator, and died soon thereafter. My wife found out that her mother had died after her plane landed in California.
At my father’s visitation, several people told me how happy they were that they’d been able to talk with him during that short window when he was better. I must say that I resented that they, instead of me, had been able to have those face-to-face conversations with him. But while I still regret my absence, I’m now glad for all those he got to talk with. He was far from alone.
As a cross-cultural worker, I served under the banner of Matthew 28:19, the “Great Commission,” a passage that is followed by what many have called the “Great Promise”: “And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (NIV). It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us as we serve overseas. It is a great comfort to know that Jesus is with us whatever our vocation, wherever we are. And while we often look to this promise for the miraculous fruit it will bear as we spread the gospel, it is his presence, not his actions, that he pledges. He will be with us. He is with us.
It is a great comfort to know that he is with them, too.
He was with my father through my mom and sister and our neighbors who visited him in the hospital, encouraging him in the ICU. He was with my wife’s brother and mother and other family members through those in the community who gathered around them and ministered to them. He was with the people of Joplin through the first responders and medical workers attending to their injuries. He was with Joplin through the churches and volunteers (177,000 who registered in the first two years following the storm), handing out meals and supplies and cleaning up tons of debris. He was with our oldest son through our sending church and friends who were already looking out for him in our absence. And he was with our second son, who was attending university an hour and a half away, through friends we knew from college who checked in on him for us as storms continued to roll through the area.
And even when bad things happen and no other person is around, Jesus is there. How do I know it? Because he promised to always be close by, and he is trustworthy.
When hard things happen there while we’re here, we wish we were there, too. But we’ll never be all the places we wish we could be. That’s why we depend on others to be there for us. And we lean on Jesus, the one who is here and there and everywhere, now and then and always. Remembering that doesn’t completely take away the distance and the hurt, but it does help. When we can’t be there, he can. When we’re not present, he is. He says it’s so, and that’s a promise we can rely on.
[photo: “Horizon,” by Sandro Bisotti, public domain]