In the predawn hours of May 30 in Valley Springs, S.D., tornado sirens pierced the air, rain poured and windows clattered as they blew off hinges.

Beaver Valley Lutheran, a steadily growing congregation of around 420 active members, was directly in the path of the tornado. The church, more than a century old, suffered significant damage. Its offices, kitchen, fellowship hall and education wing were mangled into unrecognizable piles of debris, said Greg Johnson, pastor of Beaver Valley.

As morning broke, parishioners assessed the damage across the church’s 11-acre campus. They wept among their prayers and then got to work. The cleanup group quickly swelled to scores of people, including passersby.

Johnson said the crowd continued to grow throughout the day, even as rain intermittently kept coming down. There were offers of immediate aid from other Lutheran and many non-Lutheran congregations. Johnson said nearly a dozen area congregations also invited Beaver Valley’s members to set up shop in their buildings “for as long as it takes you to rebuild.”

The church’s offices, kitchen, fellowship hall and education wing were mangled into unrecognizable piles of debris.

“The experience of receiving hospitality is humbling,” he said. “In the past, we have chipped in with prayers and sometimes with direct assistance when other congregations have had trouble. To be charitable is one thing, but to receive charity—the love of folks close and literally, in this case, from across the nation—is life-changing.”

Beaver Valley’s sister ELCA congregation, Brandon (S.D.) Lutheran, less than 2 miles away, became its Sunday worship location this past summer. “They insisted on not only providing space and technical support for Sunday worship but will also be the temporary office for our time away from our campus,” Johnson said. “The love we have received and continue to enjoy has awakened us to the power of the large, communion-of-saints church.”

Monetary donations started to pour in soon after the disaster, too, from organizations, churches, individuals and businesses. Some money came from far away—and from young members. Johnson said one donation came from a vacation Bible school offering from children in Wisconsin. This gift inspired Beaver Valley members to encourage their youth to consider where they could send their VBS offerings this year.

A children’s Sunday school class also sent a donation. “What a wonderful lesson for all of us,” said Susan Johannsen, vice president of the congregation’s council. “Community matters. Our children learn life lessons this way.”

Johannsen said it’s difficult to put into words the emotional effect that the tornado and the generosity experienced in the aftermath has had on the congregation. “To experience the destruction and then to watch our neighbors, friends and community members pour into our parking lot that morning was overwhelming,” she said. “You cannot believe the willingness to dig in and do what was needed.

“We watched longtime members, families with young children, sister congregation members and just some who saw a need [show up]. They brought themselves, food, water and supplies without asking. This was a nondenominational response. It still brings tears.”

“To be charitable is one thing, but to receive charity—the love of folks close and literally, in this case, from across the nation—is life-changing.”

Constanze Hagmaier, bishop of the South Dakota Synod, said more than 100 people were already on-site beginning cleanup when she and Alan Blankenfeld, the synod’s rural ministry liaison, showed up only hours after the tornado hit.

“Through the tears and shocked faces, there was also resilience and the desire to build back their church better than before,” she said. “The congregation was grateful that the synod was there to walk with them, and as we cleaned up, we began the process of working with Lutheran Disaster Response.

“We are so grateful for the quick response of LDR to help Beaver Valley, and I give thanks for the spirit of resiliency and togetherness in the congregation. I am confident that the future is bright for Beaver Valley, and they will continue to proclaim God’s word for many years to come.”

With so much construction going on in the area in the aftermath of the tornado, the congregation has yet to find a company that can begin removing the debris from within the layers of the building, Johnson said. The outside of the building has been beautifully restored, the cemetery is cleaned up, and everything is in order and comfortable in the outdoor campus pavilion where the congregation worshiped on Wednesdays when weather permitted.

“But the rebuild of our building will simply take a good measure of patience,” he said. “We are told we may well be living with our temporary arrangements into 2024.”

Cindy Uken
Cindy Uken is a veteran, award-winning reporter based in Palm Springs, Calif. She has worked at USA Today, as well as newspapers in South Dakota, Minnesota, Montana and California.

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