Friday I was in Joplin, Missouri on the business of the Salvation Army’s role in housing recovery.  It has been over two years since the stunning tornado of May 2011 left the city of Joplin with blocks empty of houses and a community missing 171 lives.

The meeting ended.  I headed out of town south on Main Street.  Somewhere around 20th Street I began to look at the emptiness.  At 28th I turned west to take a couple photos.  I tried to capture that sense of emptiness.   Friday morning’s crisp air, bright sunshine seemed to make it all more aching.photo 1

There has been a fair amount of new housing raised in those blocks.  But there is no denying it hasn’t yet removed the barren look.  Where are the trees?  And the age mix of buildings which tells you that a city was as well as is here?  All the new housing, well, looks new, and what can anyone do about that.  The housing is great but it all is sort of eerie.

When cities experience death it often is slow, gradual.  Many old towns quietly sit along once busy US highways, like empty snail shells.  Life of the city now flows a few miles away on interstates, no longer through, nourishing its commerce.  Not unlike river towns now abandoned as river travel was abandoned for trains and the automobile.  And famously, Detroit.  Gary IN.  Benton Harbor MI.  Their dying has come as variations on the themes of postindustrialism and racism.

Dying doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s dead.  Dying holds out the possibility of life being restored.  And cities can contain neighborhoods, blocks, sides of town that are dead yet the city as a whole continues to live.  Yes, all these scenarios are possible.

But catastrophe can and does strike.  War.  Hurricane, earthquake and tornado.  Twentieth century Dresden and Tokyo.  New Orleans, Port-au-Prince and Joplin.  No question, that in a matter of hours or minutes large portions of a city can lie dead.

How does a city recover from such scars?  For it is possible that having experienced such devastation that a community might not.  That its dead part may lead to the dying, to the death of an entire community.  Gangrene.

photo 2How to recover?

By acknowledging and engaging the community’s resources to give, lead, heal.  To also acknowledge the role other communities need to play in offering what the hurting place does not have.

To face, as the passing of time allows, its trauma, questions without answers, the mystery of terror.  And perhaps with hope the grace of God.

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