On Aug. 10, a derecho—a powerful line of thunderstorms with severe winds—swept through the Midwest, with wind speeds reaching as high as 126 mph in Iowa. In Cedar Rapids, nearly every home was affected in some way, said Craig Brown, a pastor of First Lutheran Church.
Although Brown’s congregation escaped any major damage, Gloria Dei Lutheran Church, also in Cedar Rapids, wasn’t as fortunate. The wind peeled off part of the roof above Gloria Dei’s sanctuary and knocked a tree against the building. The sanctuary, kitchen and classrooms suffered water damage.
Throughout the city, many people faced similar situations. Seeing all the destruction, Trish Decker, pastor of Gloria Dei, felt overwhelmed. “You look around at the neighbors and the community—for everything that happened to our church, that’s everywhere. Ours is just one story in so many,” she said.
Brown and Decker were among rostered ministers—the self-designated “disaster pastors”—who gathered after the derecho to figure out what could be done to help the community. They made lists of people who needed help or were willing to volunteer. Because First sustained little damage, it became the hub for relief efforts. Through the collaboration of the disaster pastors, 100 volunteers assisted 50 families over the following month.
The derecho knocked down power lines across the area, leaving some residents without electricity for as many as 12 days. To save their food, ice was one of the most pressing needs. First received a donation of $5,000 worth of ice, which 20 volunteers distributed in four hours.
Brown said the most meaningful aspect of this donation was simply that someone saw what was happening and took action. “That touched our hearts because it showed that someone was having the compassion of Christ for us.”
“That’s what we need to focus on now: How do we replant our canopy and move forward for the people who will follow us?”
Even with everyone affected by the derecho, there was no shortage of local volunteers. After the storm, Decker emailed Gloria Dei members asking for help at the church. Although she emphasized that congregants should take care of their needs before responding, 43 volunteers arrived at the church to clean the building and chop branches.
Following the storm, the “disaster pastors” witnessed many neighbors helping neighbors, even if they were strangers. Decker said people were naturally putting others first, thus minimizing the damage they endured at their own homes.
Brown agreed: “That was the hardest part—just convincing Iowans to get help. Everyone told us, ‘I’m fine, Pastor, others have it worse than me,’ and then you go to their yards and there’s eight mature trees down.”
The story of Nancy (last name withheld), the First member whose eight trees were downed, stood out to Brown. She lost an oak tree that sprouted when her now-adult sons were toddlers and grew up with the family. Despite the sentimental loss, Nancy is already planning ahead. She found another oak seedling along her house and plans to replant it in the spot of the old tree.
As Cedar Rapids residents look to the future, there’s a long road of recovery ahead. There are still roofs to be repaired and trees to be cut down. Many are discouraged, but for Brown, there is still some optimism. After the debris is cleared away, he is looking forward to replanting the city’s trees, much like Nancy’s oak. This act of creation amid tragedy is a way for the community to collectively pick up their lives, he said.
“Even in the face of disaster, you plant a tree, you do something for the next generation,” Brown said. “That’s what we need to focus on now: How do we replant our canopy and move forward for the people who will follow us? To be good stewards of our town and God’s creation and leave it a better place—that’s the next great challenge.”