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Joplin tornado led church into photo restoration

CARTHAGE, Mo. (BP) — Five years after an EF5 tornado carved a mile-wide path of destruction through Joplin, Mo., the music minister at one local church has received a community achievement award for establishing a ministry that restored nearly 40,000 photos lost during the storm, returning more than 17,000 of them to their owners.

After the tornado struck on May 22, 2011, Thad Beeler, minister of music and ministry outreach director at First Baptist Church in Carthage, Mo., surveyed the damage in his parents’ home. The tornado uprooted three large trees, throwing them on top of the house. It flipped a car and wrapped it around a neighbor’s tree. It ripped a six-foot-wide patio door out of the house and drove a block of wood through three walls and a toaster oven.

But Beeler thought it odd that family photos and artwork hanging on the walls looked undisturbed, as if nothing had happened. Then he looked out the window and noticed the remains of a neighbor’s house.

“That house didn’t have walls, let alone pictures,” he said.

The following day, Beeler was at the church office when a man came in and asked what he ought to do with a photo that had fallen in his lawn roughly a dozen miles from Joplin.

The man’s question, along with reflection on his parents’ surviving photographs, spurred Beeler and the members of First Baptist to begin a four-year ministry of restoring photos lost in the tornado as an effort to help restore shattered lives. They collected, cleaned and systematically preserved photos from as far as 200 miles away.

As a result, Beeler received an exemplary community achievement award during a May 2 banquet hosted by the Missouri Humanities Council at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.

Through what they call “reunification events,” the church has returned some 17,600 photos to their owners. During these events, “reunification specialists” trained in grief counseling help people locate their lost photos, listen to their stories and offer, alongside other resources, a Bible. Today, the remaining photos are held at a Joplin museum which partners with First Baptist to host reunification events.

So many people “had nothing left” after the tornado, Beeler said. “I mean nothing. The clothes on their back was all they had. Those folks have been so tremendously affected by people here who just wanted to [give] something that was special back to them. We’ve just shown them Christ in what we’re doing. We’re not trying to shove it down their throat, but have just shown them in a different way that people in the church can love on you in a difficult time.”

Beeler recalled one family who lost everything — not because their home was destroyed, but because all their personal belongings were contaminated by chemicals and radioactive materials from a nearby hospital that was destroyed.

“They weren’t allowed to go back to the house for photos,” Beeler said. “The only ones that they could get back were found in farm fields.”

The “Lost Photos of Joplin” project has gained recognition worldwide for its unique system of returning photos.

Last year, Beeler spoke in Dallas to 500 members of the Association of Professional Photo Organizers who wanted to be certified in First Baptist’s method for recovering photos and returning them to their owners. The church has also offered help following disasters in Moore, Okla.; Washington, Ill.; Baxter Springs, Kan.; and Granbury, Texas. They received requests for aid and advice after Hurricane Sandy hit the Atlantic coast in 2012 and after a 2011 tsunami flooded the coasts of Japan.

As a result of this widespread attention, the photo recovery team at First Baptist is developing a curriculum to train other people to collect, restore and return lost photos.

“I look at this [ministry] today, and I look at the potential for this in the future, and it is enormous,” Beeler said.

“I believe churches are absolutely the most uniquely suited to handle this. The church is one of the only organizations that deals with life and death matters from very birth to very death,” he said. “… I believe with my whole heart that this is something that churches can do.

“Why God landed [this ministry] here, I don’t know,” Beeler added. “But I do know that we chose to follow His lead, and we’re going to keep doing that until He shuts the door.”

To learn more about First Baptist’s photo recovery ministry, visit nationaldisasterphotorescue.org.

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