SALT LAKE CITY — For people of faith from Utah to Oklahoma, the devastating storms in America's Midwest this week have prompted compassionate action and highlighted the need for vigilance and preparation.
Some, like the Rev. Myke Crowder, senior pastor of the Christian Life Center in Layton, have been prompted to respond personally. Together with his son, Chris, he is soliciting donations so in two weeks he can travel to Moore, Okla., to distribute envelopes containing $500 each to tornado victims in the area hardest hit by this week’s storms.
Others, like North Salt Lake's Nolan S. Taylor, who is just wrapping up three years of ministerial service as president of the LDS Church’s Oklahoma Oklahoma City Mission, are uniting with other like-minded individuals and organizations as part of a collaborative service effort involving dozens of community and faith-based groups, all with the same objective: helping those in need.
“It’s heartbreaking to see what has happened here,” Taylor said of the powerful tornado that hit Moore, just three miles from the mission home in south Oklahoma City. At press time, news sources said 24 people were confirmed dead in what Oklahoma City Mayor Mick Cornett called “the storm of storms,” with untold millions — perhaps billions — of dollars in damages to homes, businesses, farms and schools.
“With everyone else, we grieve for the loss of life and the massive destruction that has taken place,” Taylor said. “But now we have a tremendous opportunity to serve, and our missionaries are very eager to help with the cleanup effort. I’ve asked them all to get some work boots and gloves. We’ll have boots on the ground as soon as we’re told where we’re needed.”
Local LDS boots have already been on the ground in a few instances. In the immediate aftermath of the tornado, church members responded to calls for temporary housing for those displaced by the storm as well as for generators, fuel and water. Two LDS congregations in Edmund joined forces with the Baptist congregation across the street from their meetinghouse to provide water and other emergency supplies for members of a Baptist congregation in Moore.
But for the most part, LDS volunteers are preparing for instructions that will come through a carefully coordinated effort that will include support and contributions from a wide variety of civic and religious organizations, including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“We don’t just rush in with our yellow ‘Helping Hands’ vests and start moving things around,” said President Kevin Graves of the LDS Church’s Oklahoma City Oklahoma Stake Tuesday afternoon. “There are specially trained teams in the area today, searching through the debris for survivors and stabilizing the area. The best thing we can do right now is stay out of their way."
Working behind the scenes, LDS officials are preparing to join forces with other groups through Voluntary Organizations Active in Disaster (VOAD), a response organization that functions under the direction of the governor in pulling volunteers together to respond to crises in the most effective and efficient way.
“The church has a representative on VOAD, and they tell him what they need from us and then he coordinates with our priesthood leaders to see what we can provide,” Graves said. “Clearly the LDS Church isn’t the entire solution here — we’re part of a much bigger effort. We reach in and offer whatever we can to help.”
Meanwhile, LDS leaders in Oklahoma City have been coordinating with representatives from church headquarters in Salt Lake City in an attempt to be prepared to respond to any requests that are made, from personnel to commodities to clothing to blankets. As part of its far-reaching welfare program, the church has warehouses full of food and supplies in neighboring states, so deliveries can happen quickly.
“Our experience through the years has been that people really want to help in times of crisis, but they don’t really know how to respond,” Graves said. “So they start rushing in with food and clothes and water, and pretty soon you have more than you need and you have an impediment because you have to figure out how to deal with all of that.
“By working with VOAD,” he continued, “we know exactly what is needed and we can provide help that really makes a difference in people’s lives.”
The Rev. Crowder’s objective is the same, although his approach is decidedly more intimate. It was born two years ago, when six members of his family lost their homes in a similar tornado in his hometown of Joplin, Mo. At the time, he gathered donations of clothing, food and money and hurried to Joplin to minister what aid he could.
“Being on the ground within a week of the destruction, what I found was that people often just need the basics,” he told KSL’s Carole Mikita, indicating that the cash he gives victims is intended to pay insurance premiums, repair cars or meet whatever immediate needs they have.
“Sometimes they don’t have a place for a lot of clothes — they don’t even have a home anymore,” the Rev. Crowder said. “By giving them just a couple of hundred dollars, they can buy socks for their children or for themselves or whatever else they need.”
Meeting needs, both physical and spiritual, is Taylor’s objective as well, as he prepares the 168 young missionaries and 12 missionary couples he supervises to work under the direction of local church leaders for as long as they are needed.
“We have eight zones (an organizational unit usually consisting of 16-20 missionaries), and so we’ll probably rotate them in and out of the work area so they can have plenty of time to serve there and then plenty of time to return to their missionary work in the field,” Taylor said. “This is a time when faith needs to be built — and can be built — both through our service in the community as well as through our proselyting efforts.”
While the missionaries and other Latter-day Saints will be reaching out to all who have been impacted by the storms, their efforts will likely include service to a number of LDS families severely impacted by the storms. Graves said 13 families from the four LDS stakes in the Oklahoma City area lost their homes, and eight homes belonging to church members incurred minor damage. He spoke of one family that lost its large farm and more than 100 horses in the storm.
Thankfully, Taylor and Graves agreed, there has been no loss of life among LDS Church members and missionaries. “We were blessed,” Taylor said, noting that preparation played a key role in that blessing.
“We train our missionaries from the time they get here how to deal with severe weather — how to spot it, how to prepare for it, how to protect yourself from it,” Taylor said. “It’s an occurrence you can expect pretty regularly between the first of March and the end of June. So usually in the February zone conferences we get out all the training materials and review it with everybody. It’s a constant cycle of reminders and information.”
During the tornado season, the mission office monitors the weather closely and sends alerts out to particular companionships, districts or zones based on the forecasts. When severe weather hits, the missionaries all have a shelter to which they are assigned.
“Plus,” Taylor said, “the members really watch out for our missionaries. They are very protective and very good at getting them to take refuge when it’s time.”
KSL-TV's Carole Mikita contributed to this story.
Copyright 2017, Deseret News Publishing Company