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Devastating tornado in Oklahoma makes Cambodia seem a safe haven

DEL CITY, Okla. (BP)–On May 2, God spoke to Steve Ellis through a passage of Scripture in the Book of Jeremiah.
“The Lord’s anger is a storm, a furious wind that will rage over the heads of the wicked. It will not end until he has done all that he intends to do. In days to come his people will understand this clearly.” Jeremiah 30:23-24.
Ellis’ understanding of the Scripture came more quickly than he ever imagined.
On May 3, a “furious storm” raged over the Del City, Okla., missionary residence where Ellis and his wife, Patti, missionaries to Cambodia, and their four daughters were living while on furlough.
The family huddled in a neighbor’s storm cellar while their home and its belongings were ravaged by the fierce tornado.
“We face danger every day in Cambodia, but thought we were safer in the United States,” Ellis said.
The Ellises and their four young daughters, Hannah, 12, Molly, 10, Michal Ann, 9, and Bethany, 7, left their home in Dallas for Cambodia in October 1994, knowing they would face opposition and restrictions in the Buddhist-dominated nation.
A native of southwest Missouri, Steve made a profession of faith in Christ when he was 18, was called into the ministry and enrolled at Criswell College in Dallas, where he met Patti, a native Texan.
Although laypeople, the couple was active in Midway Road Baptist Church in Dallas before going to the Southeast Asia nation where Steve serves as country director for Cooperative Services International, developing projects, doing humanitarian aid and facilitating Cambodians in starting churches.
The Ellises say they face dangerous restrictions, warfare and persecution by the government and the religious majority.
“Satan has controlled and dominated the region for years,” Steve said. “There is significant oppression, and I believe all of it is for the purpose of discrediting us.”
The Ellis family was the host of a group of 30 University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma Baptist University students who were stranded in Cambodia during a coup in July 1997.
“We thought it would be refreshing to come home to the States where it was safe,” commented Steve, but added, “You’re only as safe as you’re in the center of God’s will.”
The safety of the Ellis family was severely challenged as clouds began to mount into dangerous storms the evening of May 3. The Ellises were in their yard, enjoying the quietness of an Oklahoma spring evening, when oldest daughter Hannah suggested they should come in the house and see what was happening on TV.
They watched as the storm approached southwest Oklahoma City, then decided it was time to take cover in the cellar their neighbor invited them to early in the evening.
“We took water and a radio and went next door,” Steve recounted. “Then we gathered other neighbors and ended up with 21 in the cellar.”
It started raining hard, the Ellises said, then came baseball-size hail.
“Then it got real quiet,” Steve said. “As we were standing at the cellar door, it looked like the storm was going east of us, but it turned north and headed right down our street.”
Ellis said, because of the strength of the force of the storm, it took three grown men to hold down the cellar door.
“It was the loudest thing I ever heard,” Steve said. “Louder than a train or a jet engine.”
Patti noted the force of the wind sucked the air out of the cellar.
“We felt like our heads were going to explode,” she said. “The force was so strong that it pulled plaster off the cellar walls.”
Following a loud boom, the occupants of the cellar realized something had fallen on the cellar door, which may have been a blessing, because “I’m not sure we could have held the door closed,” Steve said.
After the storm blew over, the men tried to open the cellar door, but couldn’t budge it.
“After a few minutes we heard voices outside and started calling out,” Steve said. “They yelled down to us, and we told them we were all OK, but couldn’t get out. They went for help, and when we were finally dug out, we realized there must have been 2,000 pounds of debris on top of the door.”
As the group of 21 climbed out of the cellar, they came face-to-face with total devastation.
“It looked like a bomb had been dropped on the area,” Steve said.
As they walked around, the emotion and shock of what they had experienced began to settle in. Gas was spewing everywhere. Firemen showed up and moved people toward the fire station.
As they passed debris, Steve noticed some neighbors trapped, told his family he would catch up with them, and stopped to help.
He uncovered a man who was severely injured with two broken legs with the bones sticking out and an arm hanging just by skin.
“I read later that he died, but his wife survived,” Steve said.
Trying to catch up with his family, Steve walked to the fire station and found it empty. Someone told him people were at Del City High School. He walked there and found no one.
“I finally ended up at Sunnylane United Methodist Church where I started making phone calls,” Steve recounted. “I got hold of a member of our church who lives in Edmond and told him I couldn’t find my wife and daughters.”
In the meantime, Patti and the girls were picked up by a church member and taken to the home of First Southern Baptist Church, Del City, staff member Wilson Beardsley. The member in Edmond called Beardsley asking for help in finding Steve’s family, and discovered they were safely there.
Three hours later, Steve was reunited with Patti and the girls, who were already asleep.
The following day, Steve and Patti went to First Southern’s clothes closet to get a change of clothes, while church members took the girls to their homes to bathe and change from the pajamas they were wearing when they went to the storm cellar.
Steve was acquainted with a U.S. marshal who lived in Del City and had adopted a child from Cambodia. He helped Steve and Patti get back into their neighborhood to try and salvage some of their personal belongings.
They said the missionary residence of First Southern was demolished; they could not see any sign of their bedroom or any of its furnishing; the piano was in the back yard.
However, the first thing they found was a desk with the top and sides blown off, but in the drawer were six passports and return tickets to Cambodia.
“We planned to return to Cambodia Aug. 1,” Patti said. “It has always been in our minds that we might go back sooner, but after this, we believe finding the passports and return tickets, and having nothing left here, it is time to return.”
The Ellises had begun packing a crate for the return to Cambodia, but all that was lost too.
“At least we’ve condensed what we had to take back,” said Patti, laughing.
Steve said they were encouraged to find some of their possessions, like his laptop computer, most of a coin collection, his baby spoon and his grandfather’s pocket watch.
Patti said they found most of their family pictures, which were wet, but salvageable.
“We found most everything that was important to us,” Patti said.
Steve said possessions are not everything to the family.
“This made me think of the song we used to sing back home in Missouri — “This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through. My treasurers are laid up somewhere beyond the blue,’” Steve said.
Patti said her children think of Cambodia as their home, so they don’t feel they’ve lost their home.
Recently, she said, Hannah came to her and said, “Life is so simple in Cambodia. Don’t you feel programmed to death here?”
“We’ve experienced a lot in Cambodia, but there is a stability to being there,” Steve pointed out. “The burden of our hearts is in Cambodia.”
Steve emphasized it is a show of God’s grace and mercy to see so many survive such a deadly storm.
“Being in the midst of hardships sometimes means you are in God’s will,” he said.

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  • Dana Williamson