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Joplin trees

August 9, 2011

On May 22 of this year, a category 5 tornado hit the heart of Joplin, Missouri, leveling neighborhoods and stores and claiming 153 lives.  Joplin is only a two-hour drive from my home in Kansas City, so news about the tornado and its aftermath have been in the news and in conversations constantly.  Last week, I had the opportunity to go to Joplin for two days with the youth group from my church to help with relief efforts.  Our whole group was excited to be able to help and wondering what the landscape would look like.

Driving into Joplin from the highway, you wouldn’t know the city had been hit by a tornado aside from signs on businesses showing their support and prayers for the town.  Closer to the center of town, there is a small perimeter of businesses and homes that are badly damaged but still standing.  Then you see the neighborhoods that are no longer there: concrete slabs and basements remain where homes used to stand.  On other streets, some houses are still standing, but windows, doors, and sections of roof are missing.  These rows of houses reminded me of what I saw in Bosnia in 2001: eyeless, crumbling monuments to a horrific civil war.  Joplin is a war zone.  The high school is still standing–a mangled mess of metal beams with entire walls gone, exposing empty classrooms to the elements–and surrounded by a small village of tents, building materials, and hundreds of volunteers.

Perhaps the most unusual sight was the trees.  Tall, eerie trees stripped of their bark stand like pale sentries guarding abandoned homes.  But most of them have new growth: short, tender, green branches that grow close to the trunk, sprouting from unusual places.  The new branches look unnatural, adorning the trees in ways branches were not meant to.  But they are evidence of life: evidence that these trees are determined to grow, no matter what was taken away from them or how they look now.  The trees, I think, are a fitting metaphor for the people of Joplin.  They are determined to rebuild and live, even if life looks very different now.

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