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Baptist church members in Kansas value small miracle in tornado’s wak

HAYSVILLE, Kan. (BP)–Bo Graves says he will never forget 8:29 p.m. on May 3. That’s when he went from being the senior pastor of a fast-growing church in a comfortable suburb to being the shepherd to a grief-stricken flock in a devastated community.
The sanctuary of First Baptist Church in Haysville, Kan., sits just two blocks east of the gash that a quarter-mile-wide tornado carved through the heart of this town of 10,000 on the south side of Wichita. In a few short minutes, the twister killed five people in Haysville and Wichita and injured more than 100 others.
Graves lost no church members, and his home and family suffered no damage or injuries. But he grieves with many church members who suffered the loss of friends, neighbors, homes, automobiles, family heirlooms and even pets.
Nevertheless, he is thankful for many small miracles in the midst of the suffering — starting with his own protection. Graves related his personal story of the disaster: “I was here at the church for a meeting when the police department called.” The church basement serves as a storm shelter for the neighborhood. As about 50 residents crouched on the floor amid the sounds of the mounting storm and the wailing tornado sirens outside, Graves did something that probably would have cost his life if the tornado had taken a slightly more eastward track. “Stupid me. When it actually hit, I was upstairs in the pantry getting some coffee cups for the people downstairs.”
The church building suffered no damage other than a 2-by-6 board — shot more than two blocks from the tornado funnel — that embedded itself in a wall.
Three other churches in Haysville didn’t fare so well. They were completely destroyed, including Victory Baptist Church, an independent Baptist congregation two blocks down Grand Avenue from First Baptist. It was swept clean of its foundation, leaving only an upright piano to mark the former sanctuary.
After Graves emerged from the shelter and confirmed that his family was safe, he began hearing about other little evidences of providence among his church family.
“We had one church member who was caught right in the middle of an intersection” in the tornado, he said. “It spun her car around three times and shot a two-by-four straight through the windshield. It barely missed her head.
“God really spared her.”
An 84-year-old church member survived by hiding in her home’s center closet — the only part of the house left standing after the storm. Fran Swor and her son, Marshall, were at their home in the center of the damage path when the tornado struck. They narrowly escaped death. Fran woke her son, who was asleep on a living-room sofa, when she heard the tornado sirens. Minutes later, the tornado tore into the house, blowing out the living room wall and dropping the roof on top of the sofa where Marshall had been sleeping. “If I hadn’t been home, he would have been killed,” she said.
But the joy of the protection was tempered by the news that their neighbor to the south — an 83-year-old man — was among those killed in the storm. And Fran and her husband, Lloyd, lost their home and most of their possessions.
They also lost more than 20 old-growth oaks and birches — highly valued on the treeless plains of Kansas. “I didn’t care that much about the house, but the trees are what has broken my heart,” Fran Swor said. Her grief was mirrored dozens of times over across the community and elsewhere in the First Baptist congregation. In all, eight families from the church had their homes completely destroyed by the storm. Several more suffered some sort of damage.
The American Red Cross reported that in the entire community of Haysville and south Wichita, a total of 1,109 homes were completely destroyed, another 2,249 suffered “major damage,” and 5,126 sustained “minor damage.”
But Graves and other church members have busied themselves helping the wounded rather than wasting time asking why such a thing would happen. The pastor has been busy visiting bereaved families and coordinating relief efforts.
Several dozen members joined the Baptist disaster relief teams and Red Cross volunteers serving meals at the church, which served as an emergency feeding center. A 16-member Missouri Baptist disaster relief team set up an emergency food-service unit on the church grounds May 6, joined by a Tennessee team May 7.

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  • Rob Marus