Plaza Towers Elementary School

plaza towers elementary

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.


About Doug

I have been a writer ever since fifth grade when I won second prize in a “prose and poetry” contest. I am also a Presbyterian pastor, and for several years toward the end of my career I lived and worked in Zürich, Switzerland. I am now retired and live just north of Holland, Michigan, along the lake.

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5 Responses to Plaza Towers Elementary School

  1. Sandy Steffen August 10, 2013 at 6:20 pm #

    Glad you are all home safe & sound Doug!! Glad too you were able to visit with Kathy Berry. Hallowed ground indeed!!! Thank you to the First Pres. team that represented all of us in Moore. We are all so thankful for all our blessings. ( :

  2. mike August 10, 2013 at 7:52 pm #

    We are at our very best when we draw on the faith that lives within us. Glad that faith took
    you to Oklahoma. Faith can take us all as far as we care to go.

  3. Mandana August 10, 2013 at 9:32 pm #

    All I can say is that only thru the grace of GOD can one pass such a test of Faith! GOD bless the victims and GOD bless our team who tirelessly find the strength to do such missions!

  4. Dennis Ulmer August 10, 2013 at 11:09 pm #

    They say that, “Home is where your heart is”. When you have no home, your faith is still there in your heart. I think this is why the family said, “We lost it all, but walked away with everything.” They know that they still have their faith. The “shrine” in a disaster, in this case the former site of the Plaza Towers Elementary School, becomes the reminder of our faith. I am glad that First Presbyterian Church of Fort Lauderdale has missions like this one.. I think the “Shrine” is always a reminder of what happened but restores one’s faith that soon things will be OK again. Isn’t OK a fitting abbreviation for this state at this time? May God Bless them as they continue to recover from the tornado.

  5. John Wedding August 11, 2013 at 3:41 pm #

    Our youth pastor works to get our teenagers out in the mission field as much as possible. It’s good to hear about strong youth groups elsewhere!

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