Alabama Tornados Teach Why Faith Matters

May 27, 2011

People who do heavy physical training and exercise typically do so in anticipation of a big game or race.  In a similar way, people of faith do “spiritual exercises” that ultimately prepare them to transform the world.  Well-exercised Catholics are prepared to do “heavy lifting” in the world.  At least that’s what I learned on a recent trip to northwest Alabama, where just three weeks ago multiple F-4 and F-5 tornadoes ripped through the area, carving paths of total destruction.

The tornado destruction is shocking. Faith communities are prepared to provide not only immediate relief but long-term support to those in need.

Located amid the tornado-ravaged areas is Holy Spirit Catholic Church in Winfield, Alabama, which is a four-county parish whose territory is the same size as the state of Rhode Island.  Catholics are only 0.5 percent of the population in this Bible-belt stronghold.  The parish, built and funded by Catholic Extension with ongoing operational support, unites the 200 Catholic families in these four counties.   Each Sunday the parish prepares them to be lights for a community where the needs are great.

The tornadoes have complicated what already was a challenging situation.  Driving around, one notices the abundance of shuttered businesses and plants, signaling the community’s economic struggles.  Seeing the areas impacted by the tornadoes is even more sobering.  Hackleburg, Alabama, looks as if it has been hit by a nuclear bomb.  There is no more civilization, no more plant life or trees, just a surreal scene of tangled and lifeless rubble and wreckage.

Jonathan is a local parishioner who “quit his trucking job and cashed in his 401(k)” to pursue his dream of serving his local community.  He left his job on April 12.  Just 15 days later the tornadoes came, killing scores of people and leaving hundreds more homeless and destitute.  He feels the timing was not coincidental and that the Holy Spirit is calling him to do something even more than he had originally envisioned for the people in his community and on behalf of his beloved Catholic parish.

Jonathan opens an empty freezer that normally stocks frozen food and meats for hungry families. His goal is to fill the freezer.

He has been rallying support and services from the Catholics in his parish during the past three weeks, as well as collaborating with volunteers of other denominations.  He tried to fight back tears as he recounted to me his standard message at Mass: “As we go out to God’s family, friends and neighbors to practice God’s mercy, putting the corporal and spiritual deeds of mercy in action, we will identify and fill the local physical, mental, emotional and spiritual needs of our neighbors.”

 “We know exactly what our faith is calling us to do in this moment,” said Susan, another parishioner I met, when referring to her charitable readiness in the wake of the tornadoes.  She is a seasoned veteran of service who for years has worked with her granddaughter sorting clothing and food at one of the parish’s outreach centers.

Almost as if triggered by reflex, people of faith snap into action. Or, as in the cases of Susan and Jonathan, they step it up a notch.

Volunteers from the local parish sort items at the Church’s center for social concerns.

“God has never said ‘no’ to us, so why should we say ‘no’ to Him,” said Teresa, who is the pastoral assistant at Holy Spirit.  For years, she and others have been working tirelessly to support the needs of their community through their outreach center.  In response to the tornadoes, they are working on an 18-month plan, because they expect the demands of the community to spike after all the national hype  subsides and the out-of-state volunteers leave.  Parishioners of Holy Spirit are motivated by genuine love and concern, regardless of the day’s headlines.  Therefore, when the others leave, Holy Spirit parishioners will still be there, doing what they’ve done for years.  And Catholic Extension will continue journeying with this parish, ensuring that they can still practice their faith and bring hope to a community where the needs are great.

If you have ever asked yourself or been asked the question “Why be a Catholic? Why be a Christian?,” I think I just found the answer in Alabama.  We are Catholic Christians so that we may be filled with gifts that we can then pass on to the world.

— Joe Boland, Senior Director of Grants Management

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