by Nikki Miller, a Samaritan’s Purse staff writer who traveled to Oklahoma after the May 20 tornado ravaged the area
I only met Tommy Harper once while I was in Oklahoma covering the May 20 tornado for Samaritan’s Purse, but I will never forget the effect he had on others.
As storm victims, homeowners tend to hear the same things from strangers and volunteers they meet in the days following.
Often it’s, “Where were you when it happened?” or, “What was it like?”
But Tommy already knows the answers to those questions.
He was a survivor of the devastating tornado that hit his town of Joplin, Mo., two years ago. It wasn’t so long ago that he too found himself standing in the middle of complete destruction, trying to make sense of it all and figuring out how to move on. In an instant, he lost everything he had ever worked for.
So when Tommy met homeowners while cleaning up with Samaritan’s Purse volunteers in Moore, Oklahoma, he could relate to them on a much deeper level.
“I feel what these people are feeling,” he said. “That’s how I felt. I felt lost. I felt hopeless. I didn’t feel like a man because I couldn’t provide for my family.”
Tommy was first introduced to Samaritan’s Purse when we offered to rebuild his home free of charge. During the process, he helped Samaritan’s Purse volunteers rebuild his and his neighbors’ homes. But until the tornado hit Moore, he hadn’t volunteered to work in disaster relief.
When he arrived in Moore, he didn’t want to just help clean up. He wanted to talk with homeowners about the hope he found after his own crisis caused by a deadly tornado.
“The two things I really like to tell people: this is the time you’re going to have to face your demons,” he said. “Either your family is going to be so strong and unbreakable, or they’re going to fall apart. Either you’re going to become closer to God or blame everything on God. I wasn’t blaming everything on God, but I would question.”
Tommy sat and listened to a man talk about how he had pulled a child from the rubble of the school building that was directly hit by the tornado. She didn’t make it. Tommy too knows what its like to run out after a tornado to pull people from the destruction. After the Joplin tornado, he and his son ran to a nursing home to pull out body after body without finding a survivor.
It’s that kind of relating and camaraderie that’s nearly impossible to find. But for many Moore victims, it was exactly what they needed.
Finding Joy in the Storm
One of the things Tommy struggled with personally was dealing with the seemingly randomness of the tornado. Oklahoma looked similar to how he described Joplin. I could stand on a street looking down the path of the tornado where everything was completely flattened, and one or two houses were still standing.
“I had envy of other people who didn’t have it as bad,” he said. “How come John down here has his house still standing and I lost everything? It was a horrible feeling, that emptiness. It was just, I was a hole of a man, and I was empty.”
But Tommy is far from empty now. The happiness he exudes when he’s out helping clean up or meeting new people is almost infectious. It has been a long two years for him as he continues life after his own storm, but he can’t stop himself from sharing his joy with whoever will listen.
Before the tornado, he said he believed in God, but when people offered to pray for him, he’d tell them they could if they stood far away. Now he knows what its like to truly have a relationship with Jesus Christ and how necessary He is in order to move on after something as devastating as a tornado.
He saw God in the volunteers who came to help him, so he wants to be that for others now. If there’s one thing he can share with victims after relating to them, it’s how he found his hope.
“I wasn’t looking for God,” he said. “I don’t know if God was looking for me. But we met in the mix of all of that. I had to be broken. I had to lose all hope … this is where I started meeting God in all of this.”
Now that he’s back in Joplin after volunteering in Moore, Tommy hopes to still continue volunteering with Samaritan’s Purse, reaching out as one victim to another.
“I just got sucked in, and now I can’t get enough,” Tommy said. “I’m not done. If I was to do this for the rest of my life, I wouldn’t be able to repay what was given to me.”
To volunteer like Tommy with Samaritan’s Purse Disaster Relief, click here.