JOPLIN — A church congregation uprooted by the tornado that devastated this city more than two years ago officially moved into its new home last weekend — a home centered on a gift from a collection of young Sedalians that serves as a reminder that amid destruction, rebirth and grace comes from unforeseen places.
Peace Lutheran Church dedicated its new building last Sunday, and the sanctuary features the gleaming stained-glass cross that was presented to the congregation more than a year ago by the youth group from Sedalia’s Christ & Trinity Lutheran Church. In June 2011, just days after the tornado ripped through Joplin, Christ & Trinity youths traveled to the city to help with cleanup and recovery. My daughter, Hannah, was among them and during a visit to the property where Peace Lutheran’s building once stood, she noticed pieces of colored glass scattered about. She and the other youths gathered the pieces and, with the help of Smith-Cotton High School art teacher Michael Shukers, created a magnificent 3-foot-by-6-foot stained-glass cross that they gave to the Peace congregation.
During the dedication service, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America Central States Synod Bishop Gerald Mansholt said: “The cross is central and it speaks loudly to us. This cross speaks boldly, this particular cross.”
Addressing the Sedalia youth who made the trek to Joplin for the service — Alex and Allison Eppenauer, Mitchell Morenz, Emily Greble and my kids, Hannah and Chaz — Mansholt said: “You picked up these shards of glass, remnants from the old building. This cross was formed; this cross that speaks of destruction and death, of God’s redeeming love, of God’s new creation through death, of life eternal.”
That cross has done a lot for the Peace congregation, indicated by the place of honor where it hangs. But that placement wasn’t evident at first.
The Rev. Katharine Redpath, who was named interim pastor at Peace about 10 days after the tornado and who was installed as the permanent pastor earlier Sunday, said the cross “has taken on a ministry all its own.”
“As (the congregation) talked about construction of the building, something came up about the sanctuary and what kind of a cross were we going to put up in there, and I said, ‘We have one.’ They hadn’t envisioned it there,” Redpath said, adding, “It wasn’t a hard sell. It was just kind of a given once they realized it.”
Congregation president Marda Schroeder tears up a bit as she thinks about all that the cross represents.
“It emphasizes that spirit of hope — it is the pieces of Peace, of the old building. … It gives you that sense of history again, something to hang onto. But it’s new, it’s unique, there is nothing like it. It is pieces of Peace, but it is much more than that. It ties us forever with our families in Sedalia.”
After the tornado, the Peace Lutheran congregation held services at Bethany Presbyterian Church in Joplin. After receiving the cross during a service in November 2011, the Peace congregation displayed it at Bethany until moving it to its new home.
Then and now, Redpath said, “Every time people come in … they say, ‘Wow, what a neat cross.’ And we say, ‘Let us tell you about that cross.’ … Whenever I tell the story, I talk about how it has affected the lives of the youths who made it, and how it affected the people of Joplin who received it, and how it is a symbol of how God is always making us new, because those were broken pieces out of the rubble, and look at the beauty of it.”
During and after the dedication service, Peace congregants took time to thank the young Sedalians who made and gave them the gift. Alex Eppenauer and Morenz both were moved by their gratitude.
About a week ago, Redpath sent Christ & Trinity Pastor Kim Knowle-Zeller a photo of the sanctuary of the new building, and Eppenauer said he was “a little overwhelmed” when he saw the cross, illuminated, as the focal point of the worship space.
Morenz also noticed some of the colors around the altar are the same as those in the cross. Schroeder said the cross “emphasizes a different feeling” depending on whether it is illuminated or where in the sanctuary one views it.
“At certain times, the yellow will pop and I think of light, the flame of the candle,” she said. “The red, of course, we think of Pentecost and such. And the blue, I think of water and baptism.”
During his sermon, Mansholt said: “The cross is central to our life. … The cross speaks to us that God comes for the healing of the world, not just for a few individuals here and there, but for the whole of God’s creation. … It speaks to us of a light that no darkness can ever overcome.”
The light from the cross has been a beacon for the Peace congregation. Murle Lassman said church members went to the former Peace site after the tornado and tried to salvage as much as they could, but he was surprised when he learned the Sedalia youths found purpose in the broken glass.
“It means everything,” he said. “We don’t have much youth at our church, but to see that they cared that much for us, it meant a lot to us.”
At Christ & Trinity, it is known as the Joplin cross. But it goes by another name at Peace.
“That is the Sedalia cross,” Schroeder said. “It will always be the Sedalia cross to us.”