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Two Congregations of Different Faiths Forge Friendship in the Wake of Devastation

As government agencies, churches and other nonprofit organizations work to help residents recover from Hurricane Sandy, an interfaith bond forged in the aftermath of another storm is an example of the good that can come from difficult circumstances.

On 22 May 2011, the deadliest tornado in the United States in over 60 years tore through Joplin, Missouri. Local authorities estimated 25 to 30 percent of Joplin was damaged. Leaders of two local congregations, the Community of Christ church and the Joplin Second Ward of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, reached out to one another in the wake of the storm.

Just hours after the tornado passed, Pastor Steve Hicks of the Joplin Community of Christ church arrived at the home of Dave Richins, bishop of the Joplin Second Ward. The two worked together at a local building products company and knew of each other’s church leadership roles.

Only a few members of the Community of Christ congregation had been affected by the storm, and Pastor Hicks, knowing that Bishop Richins’ church and congregation were in the tornado’s direct path, was there to check in and offer assistance. Bishop Richins had just returned from a trip to assess the storm damage among his members, and the results were daunting: 58 homes were damaged, some beyond repair, and the congregation’s church building had been destroyed.

Pastor Hicks asked where the Latter-day Saints would meet now. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints had a building available in Neosho, about 19 miles away, but Bishop Richins was a bit concerned the extra expense of traveling to Neosho could be a financial burden to some congregation members.

A day or so later, Pastor Hicks approached Bishop Richins with an idea: the Latter-day Saint congregation could share his church.

“Our building was perfectly fine,” Pastor Hicks said, “not a bit of damage.”

Pastor Hicks met with his congregation, and they were enthusiastic about the idea. Leaders of both congregations met with other local leaders from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to consider the generous offer.

“Cooperation and love filled the meeting,” Bishop Richins said. “They were so giving; their pastors made it clear that they would do anything in their power to accommodate us.”

In addition to opening their church on Sundays, the Community of Christ church also offered their building for the Latter-day Saint congregation’s youth activities on Wednesday nights. Though the Community of Christ had offered the church rent-free, Church officials arranged a lease agreement for the building, and a few weeks after the tornado, the Joplin Second Ward met for the first time in the Community of Christ church.

Pastor Hicks said though the tornado and recovery process were difficult, they helped spur a number of connections in the community, including the friendship between the two congregations.

“After the shock of the storm has faded away, we have this relationship formed that is lasting,” he said. “There’s probably a good chance it never would have happened otherwise.”

Pastor Patsy Lay, who became pastor this January, said her congregation was happy to share the building.

“As a congregation, that’s what we try to do, is help the community,” Pastor Lay said. “So it just seemed the right thing to do.”

Pastor Lay said after a few months of meeting in the same building, the groups slowly began to include each other in different events.

“We just clicked; there was just a good feeling about it,” Pastor Lay said. “Since then, we’ve been including each other in different things. It’s been a very good experience, I think for both groups.”

The Joplin Second Ward met in the Community of Christ building for nearly 18 months as their meetinghouse was rebuilt. As the construction neared completion, both congregations pulled closer together.

Several weeks before the new building was completed, the Community of Christ congregation presented Bishop Richins with a gift of more than $1,100 to help beautify the church.

“They’ve just been so good to us,” Bishop Richins said. “We’ve really been able to forge a wonderful friendship, and it all came out of a time of adversity.”

Two large paintings were purchased with the donation. They now hang in the east entrance area of the new church building.

On 13 October 2012, just a day before moving into their newly completed church building, 35 members of the Joplin Second Ward congregation worked side-by-side with members of the Community of Christ congregation to help paint the front lobby, hallways, several classrooms and the multipurpose room of the Community of Christ church.

And in November, Joplin Second Ward members returned to help complete the painting of the church sanctuary, where their sacrament services had been held. They donated all the paint needed for the job to show their gratitude to the Community of Christ church.

“We wanted to serve them as they have served us,” Bishop Richins said.

Though they now meet in separate buildings, the two congregations have continued their friendship. Just after Thanksgiving, the Community of Christ church held its annual “Hanging of the Greens” service, an event to celebrate the beginning of the Christmas season. Members of the Joplin Second Ward performed musical numbers and readings alongside members from the Community of Christ.

“We got to enjoy their talents and what they had to offer, as well as our own congregation,” Pastor Lay said.

Approximately 140 people attended the service, with about half of each congregation in attendance.

“The program was very special, and a very nice blending of the two groups,” Joplin Second Ward member Marsha Clark said. “After all that’s happened, you can really feel the love between the two congregations.”

Leaders of both congregations said they look forward to future events together, including a gathering to watch the Church of Jesus Christ’s annual Christmas devotional this Sunday.

“It has been proven to me that it doesn’t matter what faith you are: as long as you have God, and you are working for the Lord, that all things are possible,” Pastor Lay said. “It’s just been such a good experience for us, to eat with them, to work with them and to see that we all are children of God.”

Bishop Richins echoed her sentiments: “Through this work and association, both congregations have learned to love and understand each other. We’ve just had so much joy out of it, just from being their friends.”

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