St. Johns Parish Church Johns Island SC

Pastoral visit to tornado ravaged western Kentucky

Blessed are the Stewards, for they shall provide shelter

By The Rev. Jeremy Shelton, Associate Rector St. John’s Parish Church, Johns Island, SC

Dawson Springs School is the only one they have ever known

Dawson Springs School sits upon a hill in the middle of the small town like a steward shepherding over the community.  It serves as the developmental center of academics, nurturing, growth, and love.  The small schoolhouses about 400 total children from pre-school through high school.  For many of the people of Dawson Springs, Kentucky this school is the only one they’ve ever known.

The library of the school quickly became an ER. 

On Friday December 10, 2021, around 10pm, a massive tornado outbreak ravaged the western reaches of Kentucky.  One of the massively powerful cyclones was a direct hit on the small, tight-knit community of Dawson Springs.  Without warning, the school upon the hill was called into action.  Without hesitation, it transformed from a place for education into a hospital, triage unit, safe-haven, center-for-tears, and shelter.  Thirteen people of the immediate community — sons and daughters of Dawson Springs School — died that night.  Many more were injured.  The library of the school quickly became an ER.  Blood soaked into the carpets, which remained stained some three weeks later.  School sports uniforms were used as tourniquets.  Overnight chaos and darkness consumed the school, the people, the entire being of the little town.  

 75% of the homes in Dawson Springs were completely destroyed.

When the sun rose on Saturday morning, darkness remained.  The people were left to assess damages, search for loved ones, and mourn the destruction.  Dawson Springs School remained the haven for shelter.  It was left physically unharmed from the tornadoes, but the emotional wounds run deep.  About one hundred yards away, where a majority of the town’s housing was, is now left with physical, emotional, and spiritual devastation.  The destruction is significant, as an estimated 75% of the homes in Dawson Springs were completely destroyed.  Seventeen of the faculty and staff at the school lost their homes entirely.  

Help came in a myriad of ways... providing Christmas gifts to little children.

Outreach response was significant and immediate from all over the nation.  Churches, governments, outreach groups, linemen, and more swarmed many of the areas of western Kentucky to help in a myriad of ways.  One of those ways was providing Christmas gifts to little children.  Truckloads of toys, bikes, books, and more descended upon Dawson Springs and were distributed to the kids.  A true Christmas blessing to all who received.  
As a native Kentuckian — living in South Carolina for nearly two decades now — I still have a heart and fondness for my homeland.  Upon hearing stories and seeing images of the devastation, the need to respond grew strongly.  My wife, Jessica — also a native Kentuckian — and I knew we wanted to help in some way.  In her wisdom, Jessica suggested providing Christmas gifts to teenagers in the area.  So, with the blessing and financial generosity of St. John’s Parish Church, our family left Johns Island and headed to Dawson Springs on December 27.  

Driving through the town was like driving through a theater
of sadness and carnage

We arrived at a community that had been shaken beyond its core.  The devastation was so much worse than we imagined.  Driving in on the Western Kentucky Parkway, we began to see debris in the tree tops five to six miles outside of town.  Clothing, linens, bags, and even sheet metal adorned the upper branches like unwanted Christmas decorations.  Driving through the town was like driving through a theater of sadness and carnage.  One of the first massive piles of debris — leftover homes — contained the remnants of children’s playthings.  An immediate reminder of the generational impact of these storms.  

The beginning of a sense of normalcy.

Upon making our way up the hill to Dawson Springs School, we found our way into the gymnasium, which was being used as a storehouse for goods like bottled water, clean towels, and paper products as recently as the previous day.  But this day, was the return of the Dawson Springs Panthers basketball teams to practice.  The beginning of a sense of normalcy.  We met coaches Mickey and Skylar, along with the rest of the boys' team.  Three of those teenagers lost their homes entirely.  We introduced ourselves, asked about them, listened to them, prayed for them, and gave them gift cards as late Christmas presents.  A couple of hours later we were able to meet with coach Amanda and the girls' basketball team who also resumed practice that day.  All of the gifts were met with joy, appreciation, tears, hugs, and handshakes.  

All of St. John's gifts were met with
joy, appreciation, tears, hugs, and handshakes.  

Over the next days, we listened to stories from many of the people in Dawson Springs.  We prayed with them.  We cried with them.  It will take years for this community to heal from the trauma they experienced on December 10, 2021.  The greatest ongoing need for the community of Dawson Springs, and all of western Kentucky is counseling.  They have experienced incredible trauma; rebuilding will take years, cleanup is ongoing.  The recovery and restoration are a long-term process of which we all can be involved.  Prayer is an essential aspect; please keep the people of western Kentucky in your prayers.  
In Isaiah chapter 40, the prophet proclaims God’s favor — even in the midst of the destruction of Jerusalem — that God alone will bring comfort to the people, will speak tenderly to the people, will provide justice for the people.  As our tears flow, the servant of all mankind, Jesus, provides comfort and peace.  Though our tears flow, they flow from the eyes of people who possess hope.  Hope that restoration will come.  This is the hope provided by Jesus in Revelation 7, 
They shall hunger no more, neither thirst anymore; the sun shall not strike them, nor any scorching heat. For the Lamb in the midst of the throne will be their shepherd, and he will guide them to springs of living water, and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.  
St. John’s Parish Church, Servant’s Heart Disaster Relief, and Anglican Relief and Development Fund (ARDF) have committed to providing sustainable help for years to come.  If you would like to join in these efforts, please reach out to Fr. Jeremy Shelton at St. John’s Parish Church, Stephen Haynesworth at Servant’s Heart, or ARDF directly.  Together, we can be the light of Christ to a people in need.  
As Dawson Springs School sits upon the hill overlooking the town, my prayer is for it to be a beacon of hope, a lighthouse of Jesus Christ, to the lost and hopeless — those who have been forced off course by storms — because we know that a city set upon a hill cannot be hidden.  
If you would like to support this cause, you can either donate through St. John's Parish Church and write Anglican Relief Fund or ARDF on your gift or go to the Anglican Relief Donation Page https://ardf.org/joseph-fund
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