On Sunday morning, Nov. 17, 2013 an EF4 tornado zipped through Illinois, killing seven and decimating portions of the state. Washington, a town of 15,000, was hit the hardest.

Fifteen miles down the road in Peoria, the congregation of Grace Presbyterian Church was huddling in the basement. After the storm had passed, seven families drove back to Washington to find their homes no longer there. The homes of two others were damaged beyond repair.

As the debris settled around Washington, the reality struck. Twenty percent of the town had been leveled. Thousands — including the nine families from Grace — were forced to find shelter in nearby hotels, rental properties, or homes of friends and family.

Members of Grace sprang into action to assist their brothers and sisters as well as those in the wider community. They set up an emergency financial-aid fund to help with immediate needs. They provided housing. And they set up a “meal train” to provide food for those affected.

“Perhaps like never before in our lives, we have received so many tangible expressions of love from so many people from all over,” said Jim Carmean, one of the Grace PC members who lost his home. “There have been financial gifts, hugs, meals, clothes, cards and calls, encouraging words, and more hugs. It’s beautiful and humbling to be on the receiving end of such an outpouring of love from God’s people.”

A few members of the church found unique ways to help. One Grace member donated $250,000 from his business to contribute to the Salvation Army’s efforts in Washington. Karen Frey, Children’s Ministries director at Grace, began volunteering as the site director for the Washington Tornado Relief Center, a donation clearinghouse that has become known as a “Free Walmart” for those in need of toiletries, clothes, school supplies, etc. Many of Grace’s members began volunteering alongside her to serve the approximately 600 people who stop by the center every week.

“Many of our churchgoers volunteered daily to help get things organized,” Frey explained. “They made phone calls to get needed items, they brought their children to help sort clothing, they found shelving units, listened to victims’ stories, cried with people that came in, hugged people that didn’t look like them. I told our leadership that the tornado has put our faith into action. We as a church were able to forget about what people looked like, how they acted, and how they talked to show the love of Christ to them. Our church was being the church the way it is set up in Acts to be.”

Months later, and Washington is still trying to dig itself out of the rubble. In early January, Mission to North America’s (MNA) Disaster Response sent a team to begin planning the construction of as many as 70 Sheds of Hope for affected families.

“The PCA has not had this many communing families affected by a storm since the Nashville flood several years ago,” said Arklie Hooten, MNA disaster-response director. “The local PCA churches have strong diaconal ministry and have done an excellent job in meeting the affected families’ needs, and are now turning their attention toward the community. They see this as an opportunity to live out in tangible ways what they believe — that God cares for people, especially broken people.”

Photo credit: Arklie Hooten