April 25, 2013
This Is Bad, But God Is Bigger
Thoughts from a West, Texas pastor, helping his community see God in the midst of devastation.
I’ve lost my home. It’s standing, but it’s not safe. All of the windows are out; in every room the ceiling is on the floor. Insulation is everywhere. My entryway is in the living room. My front door landed right on my chair, the one I usually sit in. I’m extremely blessed I was not home.
The reason I wasn’t home is that my daughter ran well in a mile relay, so we were out of town for her track meet. On our way back home to West, Texas, my cell phone started ringing. Our friends told us what the rest of the nation now knows: a fertilizer plant had exploded.
After a fire started at the plant, our volunteer firemen rushed to put out the fire. That drew them in, and once they were out there, the explosion happened. Many died. One of the first responders, a volunteer fireman, was our sound technician. The blast literally blew him out of his boots. His boots stayed on the ground and he did not. Fortunately, he’s going to be okay. He suffered some cracked ribs, a shoulder injury, and he had problems breathing. He was pretty sick for a while in the ICU, but he’s doing better.
Even now, everybody is in shock. It’s horrific. We’re beginning to heal, but for days we just walked around in a haze. It feels like walking through a science fiction movie, and we’re just waiting for the credits to roll. We’ve verified 14 fatalities. We’ll find more. An apartment complex that houses about 20 units was totally obliterated. They have dogs in there, and they’re still finding remains. There are many casualties, many injured.
In my church family, we had no fatalities. We feel very blessed. We had many injuries, but only a few that were serious.
Our church’s response
We’re a small town. I’ve heard media say 2,800, but I think it’s closer to 2,500. We’re doing the best we can to stay in touch with all of our folks. We’re working with groups from our denomination who specialize in disaster relief. Folks all over the town know they can come to First Baptist to meet with these guys and get some help. They’re starting to repair houses and fix up the place. They’re doing a tremendous job. Authorities are slowly letting people into the blast area to see their homes. We’ve determined that 12 of our families have had their homes destroyed. Up to 30 had damage of some sort to their homes.
We were determined from the beginning that we still were going to have church. The explosion happened on a Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning we began telling people, “We’re going to have church, we just don’t know where.” We waited through the, week hoping and praying that we would be able to get into our church. By the end of the week, we still were not allowed in. So we went to the other side of town and set up some chairs in a hayfield. One of our men mowed the area. We set up chairs and brought out a flatbed trailer, and one of our sister churches in Waco brought us a portable sound system. And we had church. My church usually has about 250 people but that Sunday more than 500 showed up.
I told the folks, “We’re a family, and families need each other at times like this more than any time.” This would be the worst time for us to decide not to meet. God is still God, and he is worthy of our worship no matter what’s going on around us. So we’re determined. Every Sunday we’re going to worship, we just don’t know what it’s going to look like yet.
I was preparing to preach a sermon responding to the Boston tragedy. But all of a sudden, we had our own tragedy. That sermon about something way off yonder became about an event right at home. I guess the Lord was preparing me ahead of time.
This was the first time we had seen each other and the pain was still very raw. So I went to Psalm 46:1–3:
God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging.
I talked about how, as scary as this catastrophe is, we don’t have to be afraid because he’s here to take care of us. He’s our refuge; he’ll give us strength. We needed a message of comfort and hope.
A few lessons from tragedy
There are so many ministry lessons that can come out of something like this. In ministry, it’s easy to get caught up in the wrong priorities. You get caught up in numbers and money, and then something like this happens. It reminds you that ministry isn’t about making sure your church is the biggest and the best. Ministry is about glorifying God and taking care of his people. It’s easy for us to take him for granted, to forget our real purpose. This tragedy reminded me that, really, it’s about “him and them,” not about “me.”
Another lesson I’ve learned is to trust the people that God has put in my circle of colleagues. My associate pastor is a great guy. I love him so much that I try to make his job as easy as I can. So I haven’t trusted him with enough. I have not allowed him to use his gifts the way I should have. I’ve seen him respond well in the aftermath of this tragedy, and I was finally placed in the position where I could not do everything on my own. In our relatively small church, I can usually take care of things. But this time, I could not. So I had to learn that I’m not supposed to do everything. God put my associate pastor here and gave him the gifts that he needs. I need to trust him to do what God has called him to do. It’s been good for me to reevaluate my role and his role. I can’t do his job for him; I have to let him do what God called him to do.
Another lesson I’ve learned is that it helps for a pastor to be somewhere for a while. It helps build the trust of your community. Then when disaster strikes, you’ve got that trust, and the community knows it can depend on you. If you’re always moving to work your way up to a big church, you lose that opportunity to minister to folks. You haven’t been there long enough to build trust. I’ve been here for 18 years. At times I’ve thought, I wonder why I have to stay in this little church, this little town. I wish I could move on to bigger and better things. But now I know that God was having me build a long tenure so I’d be ready for this.
I’m still trying to balance all of this. I’m struggling with trying to take care of my family, trying to shoulder the responsibilities of a family without a home. I have to balance that with the responsibilities of leading a church and, to some degree, leading a community. That’s very difficult.
For the church, the challenge is going to be to appropriately take care of whoever we can. We’ve had a tremendous outpouring of generosity and volunteers and gifts and donations. Now we have to do something that we’ve never been trained to do. We have to learn how to coordinate volunteer groups that want to go on mission trips and do cleanup. We have to carefully manage money that’s been designated for this purpose. We have to trust the Holy Spirit and the experts that know this stuff.
Folks all over this community are trying to find answers. They’re reaching for God. They want comfort; they want peace. I’m trying to encourage my congregation to stay positive and share hope with people, because that’s what they’re looking for. Right now they’re sensitive to what the Holy Spirit can do in their lives. But if we get negative and complain about the government agencies all over the place, the media getting in our way, and all of these volunteers taking our spots at restaurants, then we’re going to lose our witness.
My main goal for our church is to be a place that sends out a message of hope. I keep saying over and over, “This is bad, but God is bigger.” This stinks but God’s big enough to get us through it. He is bigger than this.
John Crowder is pastor of The First Baptist Church in West, Texas.