I had never heard of the Plaza Towers Elementary School before my week-long mission trip to Moore, Oklahoma, this week.
I had heard that an elementary school had been struck by the tornado that roared through Moore on May 20, and I vaguely remember that some children were killed, but then I hear a lot of bad news. I didn’t pay much attention.
Last Monday, after a day of getting to Oklahoma and settling in and doing only 2-3 hours of debris-clearing work, our 12-person mission team drove slowly through the areas devastated by the tornado, mostly residential streets.
A great deal of the debris has been cleared away. Many city blocks where houses once stood are now cleared with only concrete slabs visible. But there were a few blocks where houses looked as though they had been blown apart with a powerful explosion. Those houses, we were told, should be cleared away soon.
Finally, though, we saw the school. Well, the school isn’t there anymore, but we saw the memorial that has sprung up on the fence around the school property.
First – and hard to miss – were the American flags. In Oklahoma, where “the winds come sweeping down the plains,” those flags are always standing at attention.
Next we saw T-shirts. Dozens of them. Every relief group that comes through, it seems, leaves a shirt with the names of the volunteers scrawled across the organization’s name. (I didn’t keep an exact count but I think church youth groups accounted for the majority of the T-shirts I saw. Where would Moore be today without church youth groups, I wonder?)
Finally we saw greatly enlarged photos of families who had lost their homes in the tornado. The families were shown next to where their home had been. Mostly they were smiling and happy. And the tag lines that accompanied the photo included: “A tornado took our home, but no storm can ever take our faith.” “Our house may be broken, but our home is strong.” And here’s the one that brought tears to my eyes: “We lost it all, but walked away with everything.”
How do people find that sort of resilience in the face of so much devastation and loss?
Inside the fence were seven small chairs for each of the seven children killed when the walls of the school collapsed. More children might have been killed, but at least one teacher shielded her children with her own body. Both of her legs were broken – and her pelvis too – but the children beneath her walked away unharmed.
I was struck by the importance of that shrine. People seem to need holy ground. People need a place to come and be quiet and reflect on the enormity of what has happened. Holy ground can be just about anywhere. A civil war battlefield. The site of a terrorist attack. A property where a school once stood and where seven children lost their lives.
On the last day we were there, the group I was with left attached a shirt to the fence. The shirt had all of our names – and the name of our church. We listened to a few verses from scripture. I prayed, trying my best not to cry. And then we sang one verse of “Amazing Grace.”
It was as holy as any church.