Triumph over tragedy
By HOLLY McCRAY
On April 19, 1995, a man clutching a paper bag stood at the south entrance to St. Luke’s Christian Life Center in Oklahoma City. He had come from downtown, directed to the church by emergency workers after the Murrah Building exploded at 9:02 a.m.
The bomb blast also had torn into the YMCA, where the man had been living. The ceiling in his room fell; first responders allowed him 5 minutes to grab his possessions and get out. St. Luke’s was the designated Red Cross shelter.
At the church doors, the man opened his bag. It was empty. He had failed to gather any belongings in those chaotic minutes.
But the church family moved quickly to welcome him to safety and provide for him.
St. Luke’s sheltered hundreds of people displaced by the disaster, assisted families desperate to locate loved ones and those grieving deaths, served thousands of meals to survivors and rescue workers, staffed six phone lines around-the-clock, made care packages, even provided a room for news media.
Twenty years later, Senior Pastor Bob Long identifies that loving response as a significant lesson from that terrible time.
"You gave your all, and you saw God bless lives. I am very clear that the grace of God helps us to overcome the evil and meanness of the world to be triumphant survivors," Rev. Dr. Long said.
Tragedy "is never the last word in your life," he said. "You take what life has dealt you and build life upon it. In those kinds of moments, I think God does strengthen you if you ask for God’s guidance.
"Nothing in life or death… (Romans 8:38-39) You can hear it, read it in your theology books, but when you live it through these kinds of experiences and look back, you know it’s true.
"We go forward as people of hope."
Long recalled pausing in the Christian Life Center. He saw about 400 people filling the great hall. Some needed a place to stay; some were counselors; and some, volunteers. Some were eating, and a long trough held cold drinks. Above cots in the fellowship hall, clothes hung from a chandelier. Church members sat talking with strangers.
"Everybody was gathered there either to be comforted or to do the comforting," he said. "I thought, ‘Wow, the presence of God is being there with one another.’ I can see it like it was yesterday."
Shortly after the explosion, pastors were requested downtown, to be present as victims were brought out of the Murrah Building. Long remembers praying as he walked there — and praying constantly as he moved throughout the coming days.
He also speaks of feeling as if time had slowed down. "You were more in the moment; you had greater sensitivity to the people you were seeing."
At one point, he was puzzled to find people unloading and setting up refrigerators and freezers in one of the church’s hallways. They told him: You’re going to need these. Then food began arriving from restaurants across the city.
"I suddenly sure was glad I had all these refrigerators out in the hall, that I hadn’t asked for, to take care of all the food that I didn’t know I was going to receive, to take care of all the people who were suddenly showing up," Long said.
"Across the city, not just at St. Luke’s, people would see a need and respond. Nobody was assigned tasks. People just stepped forward. It really was a wonderful response."
Helping after the bombing came naturally to St. Luke’s people, he explained. For 125 years, they’ve been reaching out to those in need, in times of disasters, and to the poor. Long referenced Matthew 25:40: Whatever you do for the least of these…
The church’s pastors in the 1930s and 1950s gave special emphasis to missions, he said. World Neighbors was founded through St. Luke’s. Ministries have reached into Russia. Some current missions serve disadvantaged children: Studio 222, El Sistema, and a partnership with El Rancho Elementary School.
In the aftermath of the bombing, St. Luke’s efforts "made me so very proud of the spirit of the people," Long commented.
"You discover, when you serve, there is that intrinsic joy you get to receive within as you’ve been helping to bless life in those difficult moments."
In worship on April 19, 2015, a stone from the Murrah Building will sit on the altar at St. Luke’s. It was a gift from the government to the church because of St. Luke’s role in the recovery. A candle will be lit, and the anniversary will be noted.
"Where are we 20 years later?" Long asked. "We are God’s people, full of hope, who are looking to the future and living our lives in love, who remember that as part of our history."