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Joplin church reflects on loss, rebuilding 10 years after tornado

Baptist Church crosses
Posted at 2:00 PM, May 21, 2021
and last updated 2021-05-21 12:17:18-04

JOPLIN, Mo.  — Anyone who walks inside the Harmony Heights Baptist Church in Joplin, Missouri, will find three crosses on the wall made with bricks from the previous building.

Charles Burnett, known as Pastor Charlie, told 41 Action News the crosses honor three people who died when an EF-5 tornado destroyed the Joplin church 10 years ago.

The picture of the crosses can be seen below:

Baptist Church crosses

Leo Bridgeford’s mother Ramona was one of those three victims. One of the reasons she came to church that night was to hear Leo sing.

“The solo that I sang was a special song she had requested,” he said. “Just about the end of the solo is when they let us know that we needed to take cover.”

Burnett said more than fifty people were there that night.

“From the time I dismissed our people until the tornado actually hit our church was probably four or five minutes,” Burnett said. “I expected at any moment for me to be flying through the air.”

Bridgeford said he went outside and saw the massive tornado, then ran back inside to make sure his wife, mother and some of the youth with them were in a safe place.

“When you hear the rumble of this great tornado coming, I immediately started praying because that fear runs through you, but wanted God’s protection for not only for myself but all of our congregation,” Bridgeford said. He and his wife knelt down to take cover. “My mother had two knee replacements and so she couldn’t really kneel down too much or get down so I told her to stay in the doorway where we thought it was safe,” he said.

Burnett also recapped the moments when the tornado touched down near the church.

“What complicates it even more is the fact that I was blind, I couldn’t see anything,” Burnett said.

Burnett and his wife and another couple were on the floor of a small audio room. When the storm passed, he said they were surrounded by debris.

“She said ‘everything is destroyed, everything is gone’ and I could hear the people start to holler and say 'we need help.'” Burnett said. “I couldn’t do anything at all except stand there and pray. We stood there my wife and I probably for an hour before we were able to get out of that rubble.”

Moments later, Bridgeford also discovered his mother after the tornado destroyed the church.

“I looked around for my mother, I saw her just a few feet away from me. She was face down,” Bridgeford said. “There was a little bit of a block wall that was on her and so I desperately tried to move that block wall but to no avail.”

Now, Bridgeford said hearing the song she requested that night isn’t painful but instead brings him joy.

Below is a picture of Bridgeford's mother, Ramona Bridgeford.

Ramona Bridgeford
Ramona Bridgeford lost her life during the Joplin tornado in 2011.

“I actually went through the words and everything. ‘I am crucified with Christ but yet I live, Not I but Christ that live within me’ and so that means a special meaning to me,” he said. “In my heart, I knew that she knew the lord completely and she dedicated her life as a Christian so I knew where she was.”

After the tornado, there were a lot of questions about the future of the Harmony Heights Baptist Church.

“For a little while I thought maybe this was the end of the church,” Burnett said. “We all talked about it and it was just a matter of the first week that we decided, you know, we’re not gonna let this destroy us.”

So they rebuilt. Burnett said rebuilding debt-free was a priority. And even after a difficult year navigating the pandemic, he believes his church remains a lighthouse to the community just like the lighthouse you’ll find on the stage in their sanctuary.

“You know, this is just a building,” he said. “The church of the people, we stayed together.”