Last night, we had a number of tornadoes tear through the area. The sirens a few blocks away from our house went off four separate times between 7 and 10 PM, and at one point, based on what the weather guys were saying, I was fairly certain our part of town was going to get hit.
We're fine, thankfully. There's flooding in the area, but none at our house. And no confirmed tornado touchdowns in Lincoln, though a number of funnel clouds were spotted in the sky above the city last night.
One of last night's tornadoes made national headlines, as 4 Boy Scouts were killed and 48 injured at Little Sioux Scout Ranch, a camp in Iowa, north of Omaha off of I-29. Another tornado was reported near Greenwood Nebraska, and was reportedly headed toward Ashland, which put Camp Carol Joy Holling, the camp that Sweetie and I met at, right in its path. We haven't seen any news from that, so I suppose no news is good news right now...especially since there's a few of my youth group kids at camp right now. In the past, this also would have been the week that I would have been at camp with my confirmation kids, but I changed from the traditional week our church had been going because it always would have fallen over Sweetie's and my wedding anniversary (number 8 this year--woo hoo!!!).
And while I DO love camp, sorry...it's always gonna take a back seat to my anniversary.
But it did get me to thinking back to my days as a counselor and site manager. One night in particular. It was the summer of 1996, and I was the site manager at Main Site (now called Trailhead). Basically, what that meant was I was kind of in a "middle management" position. There are 5 sites at camp, each one with its own program. The site managers oversaw their team of counselors (anywhere from 5 to 15 counselors, depending on the site), and reported to the Program director, who oversaw everything.
On this particular evening, we were supposed to go to Inspiration Point for fun campfire, followed by evening worship. Inspiration Point is on top of a big hill, and offers a beautiful view of the surrounding Platte River valley. But the clouds had been doing funny things all afternoon, we were under a bunch of severe weather watches, and some nasty stuff apparently had started to form in the central part of the state, a couple of hundred miles away. I consulted with the Program Director by walkie talkie, and together we decided that it would be best to move fun campfire to a spot closer to the storm shelter. The kids (and counselors) were a little disappointed, but I told them we could do it there, or we could do it inside, or not at all.
Kinda like some of the "choices" I give Kiddo--my choice, or two choices I know he'll hate.
So anyway, campfire finished, smores were consumed in mass quantities, we moved a short way to an outdoor worship spot (even closer to the shelter), and began worship. Each day, a different group of kids (guided by their counselor) is responsible for planning evening worship. It's a great way for these kids to actually put some thought into what worship really is, how it's structured, what the different parts are...stuff that they may do over and over at home, but don't really think about what it is or why it's there. If there are pastors there with kids they've brought, often they'll be asked to speak at evening worship.
This particular night, it was Pastor Joe Marek giving the mini-sermon. I sat in the back row with my walkie-talkie glued to my ear as I half listened to Pastor Marek talk about grace in our lives, and half-listened to our program director give us site managers weather updates. There were severe thunderstorm warnings a county to the west of us, and while the existing storm looked as though it would pass to the north of us, they were worried that it was growing to the south at the same time as it was heading east, so we might not be out of the woods.
Suddenly, our program director said, "confirmed tornado near Greenwood, headed toward Ashland. Get your kids to shelter STAT and check in immediately after."
I froze for just a second.
Pastor Marek was still preaching.
How does one go about interrupting a preaching pastor? And when would I ever again have the excuse to do so?
So I stood up, and walked slowly to the front, where he was standing. "I'm so sorry to interrupt," I said, "but I need to talk for a minute." Pastor Marek stepped aside. Turning to the kids, I said, "we'll finish worship, but we need to do so inside. Kids, hold on to your songbooks, and I need you to find your counselor. Please don't talk unless your counselor is asking you to check in with them. Counselors, when all your kids are accounted for, come to the Holling House basement with them...do not go inside until you have told me your name and that you have all your kids AND I have told you to go in. We need to do this quickly. I'll see you in a minute."
In a matter of a minute or two, all fifteen counselors were with their kids and were checking in with me at the door to the basement. We squeezed everyone inside, on the floor of the basement, and I had each counselor do one last head count. In less than 5 minutes, we had about 100 kids, 15 counselors, a couple of pastors, and a site manager who was trying to look strong but was shaking inside all in the Holling House basement. I checked in with the Program Director, who was in her own tornado shelter in a different part of the camp.
Only then did I tell the counselors that our area was under a tornado warning.
And then we finished worship. In the middle of the storm, not knowing what was going to happen, we worshipped. And when we were done, we sang some more songs. songs of praise, songs of joy, some goofy camp songs...songs to remind us that God was good.
Everyone's pillows, sleeping bags, etc. were down in their tents, and the Program Director said that once this line of storms went through, things looked as though they were going to be relatively calm for the rest of the night, so I didn't worry about trying to force the kids to sleep. Instead, we continued to sing. As time went on, we moved into quieter music, more contemplative, more peaceful. A few kids leaned against the wall and started to snooze.
Finally, about two hours after we were initially called into the shelter, we were given the all-clear and I let everyone go back to their tents. The tornado ended up doing some damage to some fields--twisted trees, destroyed pivots, that sort of thing--but stayed away from our camp, as well as other populated areas.
So last night, when I was in the basement with my family, feeling fairly certain that at any moment a tornado would be bearing down on my house, I listened to the weather guy saying there was a tornado "near Greenwood, headed toward Ashland." Transported back twelve years, I re-lived worshipping in another basement, also fairly certain that at any moment a tornado would be bearing down on where we were.
And after the news of the camp in Iowa, I prayed. And to be honest, I cried a little bit.
It was a strange night of emotion and memories.
***Quick update: After I posted, I checked my email...there was one from Camp Carol Joy Holling letting me know that all the kids are safe, and that as far as they could tell there was little to no damage from last night's storms. I can breathe a little easier now...