Congregational Excellence: Tornado destroys building, revitalizes church

3/19/2015

The evening of Feb. 28, 2012, started off like any other Tuesday night in Harveyville, Kansas.

Debris is all that remains above ground after a tornado hit Harveyville United Methodist
Church in Kansas in 2012.

 

The small community about 35 miles southwest of Topeka was enduring an evening of rain, and a Bible study was taking place at the home of a Harveyville United Methodist Church member. But the storm that night would turn out to be far more than a simple rain shower.
 

“It really wasn’t much of a storm,” said the Rev. Dennis Irwin, pastor at Harveyville UMC.
 

According to a story in the Wichita Eagle published days after the storm, a thunderstorm over the area appeared to be weakening. But just as it entered Harveyville – too late to alert anyone – radar indicated rotation. That rotation turned out to be an EF-2 tornado. It reached maximum winds of about 130 mph.
 

As tornados go, it wasn’t very large – just about 150 yards wide – but was on the ground for about five miles. It wiped out about 40 percent of the town of about 250 people. It killed one person and injured about a dozen.
 

The church at 371 Wabaunsee St. was blown away.
 

“One of the women at our study left, and when she got home she called to tell us that her trees had been blown down,” Irwin said.

He and his wife got into their truck and headed toward the church. They started surveying the damage to the homes around the church building.
 

“My wife looked around,” Irwin recalled, “and said, ‘Where’s the church?”
 

All that was left above ground was a pile of lumber atop the concrete slab, under which was the basement. Three years later, the visions of that night and the days that came immediately afterward remain vivid.
 

“You can still see a swath through Harveyville,” Irwin said. “That night we walked around town and checked on people.”
 

The lone fatality was related to a Harveyville UMC congregant.
 

It became clearer as the darkness turned to light that the town would never be the same. Amid the destruction, some things sat inexplicably left unscathed. The church computer was left in working order. Twenty five to 30 prayer shawls wrapped in plastic were in fine shape to give out to people in need.
 

With widespread damage, there would be plenty of people in need, and the church would be called upon to help – even though the church building now was a pile of debris. A food pantry housed in the church’s basement remained intact thanks to that concrete slab. It didn’t take long for Irwin and the congregation to come to the conclusion that not only would the needed ministries be provided, but the church building would be rebuilt.
 

The church decided to rebuild on the site of the
previous building, but with more room for the food
pantry that it hosts in the basement.

Dick Orton, who chaired the building committee to reconstruct the church, said once the debris was cleared away, the church had to decide whether to move to a new location or rebuild in the same location.

“We had a really good building committee,” Orton said. “They worked their butts off, and we didn’t have a lot of bickering.”
 

The community came together to help. The local Church of Christ allowed for joint worship services. In the early days after the tornado, the Church of Christ helped ensure the food pantry kept operating. Charles Kuntz, owner of Harveyville Seed Company, brought his forklift to move the food from the destroyed church’s basement to the Church of Christ’s annex.
 

The rebuilt church opened in September 2013. And it did so with a renewed focus. And the results so far have been positive.
 

Harveyville didn’t have a youth group prior to the tornado. Now it has a dedicated group of seven to eight kids. And the food pantry that had been an important supplement for some families now has a more organized work space. When the church was rebuilt, the basement was constructed with two freezers and two refrigerators, along with plenty of shelving. The entrance now allows for pantry users to find what they need close to the door instead of requiring a walk along the length of the room.
 

Linda Orton, who works with the food pantry ministry, said the number of families served each week now is about half of what it was prior to the tornado, but not because there are really fewer people in need.
 

“So many houses were destroyed that people just moved away,” she said.
 

Linda Orton said during the reconstruction, the church met in a local public school. One classroom provided space for the food pantry, meetings and Sunday school classes. Another provided worship space.
 

All the while, the building committee worked to set up the new facility so the church could fulfill its mission in the devastated small town.
 

“Once we got the steeple up, the new environment we had made everyone happy,” Dick Orton said. “We had a lot of tradition, but the new building opened us up to get some new people and do what we needed to do.”
 

One of the things the church needed to do was involve the community more than it had in the past.
 

“In a way, the tornado revitalized us,” said Linda Orton. “Now we have a planning group that plans activities. We try to do two to three things a month that brings our neighbors in.”
 

Sometimes, those events include games or community dinners. One such dinner recently included a commemoration on the three-year anniversary of the tornado.
 

Approximately 90 people – or roughly 40 percent of the town’s remaining residents – showed up for a time of food, fellowship and recollection.
 

Now, people in Harveyville realize how important the United Methodist Church is in their community.
 

“We’ve succeeded at things that we’d tried before,” Irwin said. “Losing the church building, it got the people’s attention.”


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