OKLAHOMA CITY — LDS Church members and missionaries in Oklahoma are joining forces with members of other faith groups and community service volunteers to do as much cleaning up as possible from the most recent round of tornadoes to hit America's Midwest before the next wave hits this week.
"I've been here for 18 years and I've never seen anything quite like this," said Kevin Graves, president the Oklahoma City Oklahoma Stake of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "People are used to tornadoes. It's a fact of life here. It's the sequence, one right after another, that is so unusual. And now they are telling us there are more on the way — maybe as soon as Tuesday. It's unsettling."
Still, Graves said, "the community is pretty resilient in terms of its ability to respond to these things. This is just an incredible community of good-hearted people who all come together to help each other out."
Graves said the most recent storms, which hit last Friday and left 13 dead in their wake, damaged a number of homes belonging to Latter-day Saints, including one motor home that was demolished. Church members and missionaries are all safe and accounted for, which Graves regards as a significant blessing.
"We've been able to help each other and provide for accommodations for those who have been displaced, and we've been able to get out into the community and work to help others who have been severely impacted by the storms," Graves said.
In some areas, 45-minute Sunday worship services were held at 7 a.m. yesterday so members and missionaries get out to work in the communities, helping people sift through debris looking for valuables, clean up parks and wooded areas and remove debris from pastures so cattle won't be hurt by ingesting it.
"Our missionaries are a mighty force when it comes to the work of salvation and also when it comes to the work of tornado relief," said Nolan S. Taylor, president of the Oklahoma Oklahoma City Mission of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "That's a pretty powerful army to haul of limbs and branches and sift through rubble."
For two weeks, Taylor said, "the missionaries have been involved on an almost-daily basis" with tornado cleanup. Last Saturday, the entire mission was concentrated in the Moore, Okla., area, where the greatest devastation occurred on May 20.
"We met with (Elder Ronald A. Rasband of the LDS Church's Presidency of the Seventy, who was visiting in the area) in the morning, and then spent the rest of the day working."
Graves said Elder Rasband had arrived the previous evening. He and an LDS bishop were grabbing a quick dinner before going to tour some of the heavily impacted areas when the Friday storms hit.
"We have to leave now!" the bishop told Elder Rasband as they got in their car and drove as quickly as they could out of the path of the oncoming storms.
"Elder Rasband got a taste of what things have been like around here the last couple of weeks," Graves said.
The LDS members and missionaries have been part of an effective interfaith effort to reach out to those in need during this unusual tornado season.
“All the churches, it doesn't matter what denomination they are, they are in it,” Sam Porter, director of Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief, told The Oklahoman. “That's good to see. It's just super good.”
"Doctrinal differences go away during times like this," Graves said. "We're all just here doing what the Savior asked us to do in loving and serving one another. Our shared faith in Christ transcends any boundaries or barriers as we all just reach out and serve each other."
"We have an opportunity to serve people and to work shoulder-to-shoulder with people from other religions that we would never get in any other way," Taylor said. "The missionaries just love this opportunity to serve."
With more storms on the horizon for this week, Taylor said the missionaries are prepared to continue serving as long as they are needed.
"Of course, the safety of the missionaries is our first priority," he said. "But they are all trained in what to do, and we monitor the storms so we can give them plenty of warning. They all have shelter options."
In fact, he said, "if any of them have actually seen one of these tornadoes then they are not where they are supposed to be."
What they are seeing, Taylor continued, is the aftermath.
"And they're getting a good close look at that as they dig through debris and haul away branches," he said.