Less than three months have passed since thousands of people walked side by side down the path taken by a tornado one year earlier. It was a symbol of how far the city of Joplin has come in such a short time.
The Day of Unity was an inspirational scene for those who stood along that path and for those who saw it on the news- people of all ages, all colors, and varying religious beliefs coming together to celebrate the feel-good story of the town that had conquered the forces of nature, the town that refused to die.
Somewhere in that story of tornado to triumph, another story was waiting to be told. While thousands marched in broad daylight, headed toward tornado-stricken Cunningham Park, others waited to make their entrance in the dead of night, offering a counterpoint to the sunshine and warmth.
The fire department was called to the Islamic Society of Joplin Mosque at 3:30 a.m. today, too late to stop the blaze that eventually left the building in ruins. It was the third fire in four years at the mosque, which has also seen its sign frequently vandalized. Members of the mosque have become accustomed, according to news accounts, to hearing slurs tossed at them as they headed toward their place of worship.
Not for one minute after the tornado destroyed one-third of our city and killed 161 people on May 22, 2011, did the people of Joplin entertain the idea that the tornado had triumphed. The rebuilding began immediately. We became accustomed to the praise of a nation because of the way we picked ourselves up and began the battle- not to build Joplin back the way it was, but to build an even better Joplin.
The praise, however, did not just belong to Joplin residents. In the 15 months since the tornado, the city has become a destination for those who wanted to help. No one checked those who came and turned people away because of their color, their sexual persuasion, or their religious beliefs.
If people came ready to work and contribute, they were welcomed with open arms.
One church after another has sent busloads of volunteers here on mission trips, offering inspiration to the people of Joplin, at the same time the people of Joplin were serving as an inspiration to them.
It was a couple of months after the tornado that the Joplin School District announced that it had received a half a million dollar gift from the United Arab Emirates (which was later matched with another $500,000) enabling the high school to provide MAC laptops to every student for the first time.
Thanks to the generosity of an Islamic nation, Joplin High School was able to take a bold step into the future. There were a few who complained about how the school district was selling its soul by taking money from an Islamic nation, but thankfully, those voices of fear and hatred were few and far between. For the most part, Joplin residents responded the way we all should respond when we receive a gift- with a heartfelt thank you.
Today, after the news of the fire had spread, I read a Facebook posting by one of my former eighth grade students, now a junior at Joplin High School, a young woman whose family came to Joplin from Pakistan, not just her immediate family, but also aunts and uncles- and all of them lost their homes in the tornado.
“I remember picking the building out with my parents when the Muslim community was first looking for a place of worship,” she wrote. “It was unfortunate to lose my home and school in a natural disaster but even worse that after all we've been through someone would want to watch part of our town burn intentionally out of their own ignorance.”
I thoroughly expect that the people of Joplin will rally around the Muslim members of this community in the days and weeks to come. They have been here for Joplin and Joplin will be there for them because, though a few would have it otherwise, we are all part of Joplin.
Just like other places that have battled through natural disasters, we have learned many lessons along the way. Tornadoes, hurricanes, tsunamis- nothing nature throws at us can destroy the triumphant nature of the human heart.
Nor, sad to say, can these disasters tear away the plaque from the souls of those who would loot a home destroyed by a tornado, or those who would take pleasure in destroying a place of worship.
The darkness in which they perform their evil is matched only by the darkness in their souls.