TUSCALOOSA, Ala. – During the last week of April, monster storms marched across the South leaving nearly 300 residents dead and destroying homes, businesses, schools, churches, power lines and trees. Several other natural disasters have since shifted the focus away from these survivors, but one group of students from Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., will not easily forget the victims of the tornado in Tuscaloosa, Ala.
Tuscaloosa was left with a solid path of rubble almost a mile-wide through the city. While the campus of the University of Alabama was spared, the tornado took the lives of several students and crushed the homes of students and faculty living off campus. Classes were cancelled; exams were postponed and made optional; students were sent home early.
During Purdue’s final exams, Wesley Foundation missions chairperson Andrew Ferdon began planning and recruiting volunteers to head south to do clean-up work during the week between exams and graduation. The only problem was he didn’t know exactly where to go. Then on May 3, the Rev. Lana Robyne, one of the Purdue Wesley Foundation directors, forwarded him an e-mail that included an invitation from Creighton Alexander, new director at Wesley Foundation of the University of Alabama.
“We are opening up the Alabama Wesley building to host teams in Tuscaloosa … Come as long as you can – but please come.” Ferdon immediately asked if a team from Purdue could come as early as May 9. We were their first guests and trial run along with Mercer Wesley Foundation.
Robyne admitted, “I was excited yet worried when Andrew first brought up the idea, because we’ve never done it this way before… We usually spend at least a semester discerning roles, scheduling, budgeting, mapping, building teams and raising money. As soon as we said we were going, the money poured in with more than a thousand dollars extra to help the survivors.
In addition to Wesley Foundation students and Robyne, Ferdon invited three members of Purdue’s collegiate chapter of Habitat for Humanity, former roommates and friends from China, and even his mom to help the tornado-ravaged city.
A major highlight for Jeff Li, Purdue student from China, was putting a new mailbox in for one of those residents. He was thrilled as he had never done anything like that before.
Wesley Foundation hosted our group and Wesley Foundation students from Mercer University in Macon, Ga., providing lodging, showers, sack lunches and breakfasts.
Alexander also led our combined teams in reflection, prayer and song one evening at Trinity UMC. Tuscaloosa’s First UMC fed us at night and served as the UMCOR center. Another UMC became the center for donated supplies.
In the midst of our work, our Purdue group enjoyed opportunities to have the body of Christ connect us with United Methodist Volunteer in Missions teams from Kansas, local University of Alabama students, an undergraduate group from Asbury College in Wilmore, Ky., Baptists from Texas, and our old friend and intern Lindsey Junk, now in grad school at Tulane.
A very special honor was a visit and prayer from North Alabama Bishop and Mrs. Will Willimon. Willimon especially wanted to come see, support and bless the work of student volunteers.
David Wen Hao, another student from China, reflected, “In front of the ruins, I witnessed the brokenness of the world, I realized if God left us broken, there would be no hope. What we can do for this world is always limited and hard. Maybe the only thing we can do is to keep the hope in our hearts. The work we have done in Alabama is just a little part of the whole process, but the hope we’ve left will continue inspiring people in the future.”
Jake Ohlemiller, is a newly-graduated engineer from St. Louis and incoming intern at Wesley Foundation at Purdue, who also hopes to be a future pastor.
Purdue Wesley Foundation students pose with Bishop and Mrs. Will Willimon during their volunteer-in-mission trip to assist residents of Tuscaloosa, Ala. recover from deadly tornados.
“The hope we’ve left will continue inspiring people in the future.”
– David Wen Hao