Swadley and his family carried a radio with them as they took cover the night of May 22. The local station soon began feeding live reports of the tornado's destruction. They were spared. Joplin was not.
"I knew at that time we were dealing with a disaster of major proportions," he said.
Forest Park is now at the heart of the national relief effort for Joplin. The church is coordinating food, volunteer assignments and donations in the aftermath of an EF-5 tornado (winds of more than 200 miles per hour) that killed at least 125 and injured 750, with 9 rescued and an unknown number of people still missing.
The National Weather Service reported it was the eighth deadliest tornado in U.S. history. President Barack Obama is planning on visiting Joplin Sunday.
"We are just helping people like Jesus would," Swadley said. "We are being the church and offering help, hope and healing."
Forest Park's main campus, which runs about 1,000 in Sunday worship, is just a few blocks north of the storm-damaged area in Joplin. The unharmed church building is perfectly situated to serve as a base of operations for relief efforts.
Response began just minutes after the storm as Swadley used his Facebook page to help family and church members find each other. Church leaders determined Monday morning the most urgent need was for food. Hot meals are being prepared in the church kitchen. Forest Park members are also loading sandwiches in the church van and delivering them to people in the city.
The church's "bus barn" storage facility has been designated the receiving and staging area for donated items and where supplies such as diapers, toothpaste and soap are distributed. Offers of help have been pouring in from throughout the country.
"I'm really proud of my Heavenly Father and how He is using us for His work," Swadley said.
Forest Park is the flagship church for the Missouri Baptist Convention in the Joplin area, said John Marshall, convention president and pastor of Second Baptist Church in Springfield.
"They will be in the thick of it until the end," Marshall said. "They are very community minded. They have three campuses, so they are well-positioned all the way around."
Forest Park members have also experienced great loss. Thirty-one members have uninhabitable homes. Nearly all of them have been taken into homes of fellow members. Many members share stories of how God protected them through the storm.
"When it says in the Bible to show hospitality, our people have stepped up and done that beautifully to help each other and their friends and Sunday School classes," Swadley said.
One of the most urgent needs has been helping members get salvageable belongings collected and out of the rain. (Wednesday's forecast called for a 60 percent chance of rain and scattered thunderstorms.) In addition, grief counseling sessions have been set up at the church and more support groups will be forming. Swadley's message on Sunday will be titled, "Where do we go from here?"
"We're going to try to construct a worship service where everyone can experience God's presence in a way so that they leave stronger than they came," he said.
Most debris clearing is on hold while the search and rescue operation is under way, but volunteers are expected in large numbers soon. Samaritan's Purse will use Forest Park as its base of operations, providing expertise and direction while the church supplies workers and resources for the relief effort.
"God sets the agenda for His church. When something like this happens, we have to set aside our plans and goals in the short term and adjust to what God would have us do," Swadley said.
The recovery and Forest Park's efforts are not short term, Swadley said, but will take many months.
"We're going to have dozens and dozens of people who will be unemployed because the place where they work no longer exists," he said. "We want to be able to help provide financial support so they're not further hurt in their already wounded heart. We want to do our best to cushion the blow as much as we can."
Susan Mires is a contributing writer for The Pathway, the official newsjournal of the Missouri Baptist Convention. To donate and learn how to help with relief in Joplin, visit www.mobaptist.org/modr.
Copyright (c) 2011 Southern Baptist Convention, Baptist Press www.BPNews.net