Praying in Joplin

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Sunday's tornado broke the heart of the Evangelical Ozarks. The deadliest in fifty years, its devastation continues to horrify.

To be sure, Ozarkers are no strangers to severe weather. As Vance Randolph wrote way back in 1947, "There are occasional violent tornadoes or cyclones in the Ozark country. I have seen long lines of big trees uprooted in the timber, and sometimes one of these storms destroys a settlement with considerable loss of life."

Even more chilling is the ballad legendary Ozarks musician Almeda Riddle sang about the Heber Springs tornado of 1926:

They saw th lightning flashing
They heard th thunder roar
Such tears were in that city
As never known before
And as the storm came near them
They heard th people cry
O, Lord, have mercy on us
Is this our time to die

In a recording from 1970, Riddle apologized for skipping a stanza. As she told song collector Max Hunter, "For some reason I choke up on that one. As you know, my husband and son, as I told you, was killed."

Like Almeda Riddle, the survivors of Sunday's tornado drew on the language of Zion. In a harrowing YouTube video, a woman can be heard crying, "Jesus, Jesus, Jesus, Heavenly Father."

Eighty miles away in Nixa, my son's second grade class paused for a moment of silence. Down the road, the First Baptist Church held a blood drive. Elsewhere in the Ozarks, the Convoy of Hope and the United Methodist Committee on Relief assisted in the recovery efforts, together with hundreds of non-profits.

Halfway across the country, Ozarks native Susan Campbell wrote a column for the Hartford Courant, declaring, "I love you, Joplin." Recounting a childhood spent in "Tornado Alley," she noted, "You grow up practicing tornado drills in school, but you pray the dark cloud will pass you and yours by."

Her memoir Dating Jesus describes a mixture of faith and fear: "If we weren't worried during tornado season about the Big One swooping in from Kansas and casting our meager possessions all the way to Nebraska, we worried about the earth itself." Besides occasional minor earthquakes, the area has its share of abandoned mines. Every so often, a sinkhole appears on the Ozarks landscape.

As a Boom Town surrounded by Evangelical Epicenters, Joplin's past is a mixture of enterprise and evangelism. Once the capital of the Tri-State Mining District (a wide open region spanning parts of Missouri, Kansas, and Oklahoma), it was also a center for Protestant revivalism. Named for Methodist preacher Harris Joplin, it soon became an economic powerhouse. While artist Thomas Hart Benton hung out at a local saloon, Pentecostal leader Robert Parham held camp meetings in nearby Baxter Springs. Both aspects of local history are commemorated in Benton's "Joplin at the Turn of the Century, 1896-1906," a mural which hangs in city hall.

As Joplin struggles to overcome the tornado of 2011, it will draw on both its evangelical and entrepreneurial heritage.