JARRELL, Texas (BP)–There are as many stories as there are people in Jarrell, Texas.
Some are tragic, like a family of five who were killed — a volunteer minister of music at First Baptist Church, his schoolteacher wife, their daughter and twin sons.
Some are happy, like the people who were pulled from a cellar after the three-quarters-mile-wide black funnel cloud obliterated the Double Creek Estates subdivision near the hamlet of Jarrell the afternoon of May 28.
Most of the stories are emotionally powerful.
Texas Baptists ministered to the victims, survivors, townspeople and relief workers who will live the remainder of their lives under the shadow of the horrible storm which virtually wiped the middle-class subdivision off the face of the earth.
Milfred Minatrea tells of counseling a veteran lawman, a man whose pain was deeply etched on his face as he told of pulling back debris in the storm’s aftermath. He found the bodies of a woman and a child.
The woman was cradling the child in her arms, he said. It was as if she was trying to protect the little boy. But it was to no avail. Both were dead.
Minatrea, director of the church ministries department of the Baptist General Convention of Texas, arrived at First Baptist Church, Jarrell, shortly after midnight of the day the terrible tornado struck, taking at least 27 lives and leaving millions of dollars in damages.
Baptist ministers were already on the scene: Max Johnson, bivocational pastor of the little Jarrell church which averages 40 on a Sunday morning; Oris O. Smith, director of missions for the Williamson Baptist Association in Georgetown; Jim Haskell, pastor of First Baptist Church, Georgetown; David Edwards, pastor of Main Street Baptist Church, Georgetown, and many more who came to help.
In all, more than 30 pastors came to minister to and work with the people whose lives were shattered by the storm.
Some of the ministers met with family members, many of whom were gathered in the small frame and red-brick church in the center of Jarrell.
“Some talked with the families. Some prayed with the families. Some just sat quietly with them,” Minatrea said.
Minatrea said it was amazing the number of people who “just wanted to help. Many of them came to the ministers because they seemed to think Christians had some special knowledge of how to help. Even those with no relationship with Jesus Christ came to us, wanting somehow to help the people who had been hurt so badly by this.”
Edwards, who also is a hospital chaplain, was able to minister to the extended family of a 13-year-old boy whose grandmother, mother and 5-year-old brother were killed.
The boy saw his mother killed when she was impaled by a board.
Edwards also helped Justice of the Peace Jimmy Bitz, a member of the Main Street church, minister to the families as they were told of the deaths of their loved ones. Bitz was charged with the responsibility of telling the families.
“Judge Bitz is a compassionate man who deeply cares about people,” Edwards said. “Before he talked with the families, the first thing he did was have prayer.”
Edwards said it was difficult on officials because many of the bodies had been mangled, making identification very difficult. In many cases, other sources said, dental records, fingerprints and DNA were required.
Minatrea said, “The families waiting had been told there would be a word at 2, and then at 4, and then at 6. As there is no word, the anxiety begins to be overwhelming.” Bitz asked his pastor to talk with the families, to apologize that it was taking so long.
“He wanted the people to know that he was sorry they had to wait, but that it was a long, slow process. He also wanted them to know that everyone was being handled with dignity … that they were being treated as individuals,” Minatrea said.
Baptists were among the ministers who were present when family members were finally told of their loss, and who accompanied the families to the swept-bare site at the subdivision where their loved ones had died.
The Baptist ministers also took a “walking tour” of the site while the search and recovery operation was taking place, to attempt to minister to the rescue workers, often a forgotten group, but one which bears the brunt of much tragedy.
The search and rescue workers came from a wide variety of backgrounds: sanitation and street department workers conscripted to search for the remains of victims; lawmen — FBI, sheriff’s department, police, game wardens, animal control, constables; and others such as emergency medical technicians and firemen.
Minatrea said the ministers simply walked among the relief workers and visited one-on-one with about 130 of them.
“We told them they were doing a tremendous job and asked them to tell us if there was a mental image which sticks in their mind. It was a can-opener question which opened up a lot of emotion,” Minatrea said, recalling a sanitation worker who was overwhelmed because he had found body parts of one of the victims.
“Our purpose was to get them talking and to follow up with spiritual enrichment and prayer to help these people who were out there in a very difficult situation. I was overwhelmed by the large number of them who said they wanted us to pray with them. They were very open and appreciative of prayer.”
Richard Mangum, director of missions of the nearby Bell Baptist Association, brought a number of pastors to help minister in the wake of the tragedy. He, too, participated in the walk-through to minister to rescue workers.
He told of a worker who told a pastor, “It is very difficult to find a child’s picture or a toy without feeling the pain of their loss. Tonight I am going home and hug my children and my wife.”