Reaping answers from the whirlwind

La Plata: A minister and his flock seek meaning in last week's tornado.

May 06, 2002|By Andrew A. Green | Andrew A. Green,SUN STAFF

LA PLATA - The Rev. Edward M. Voorhaar of La Plata United Methodist Church found himself in unusual surroundings yesterday and faced with a nearly impossible task.

The tornado that ripped through La Plata on April 28 heavily damaged his church, and Voorhaar was trying to help his congregation of 950 find meaning in the disaster.

Yesterday, he stood in a makeshift sanctuary in McDonough High School and read a portion of Scripture that had come to mind last week as he tried to sleep: Luke 5:27-32. In it, Jesus says: "It is not those who are well that need a physician but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but the sinners to repentance."

"When I was thinking about what I was going to say to my people on Sunday, that scriptural passage just came to me," Voorhaar said. "Those who are well don't need a physician. We are not well, so we need God's help."

Voorhaar is a meticulous man, given to typing out his sermons word for word with "conclusion" written in big letters and circled on page six or seven, to signify the time has come to wrap all the threads neatly together. It wasn't that kind of week, but speaking without a typed script, without notes, he still lived up to the reputation for oratory he quickly established when he came to La Plata 1 1/2 years ago.

The thought of all the human suffering the tornado had caused - there were five storm-related deaths - brought on a deep sense of grief, the likes of which he had felt only once before, he said in his sermon: 15 years ago when his son was killed in an automobile accident.

During the past week, he said, several people asked him whether God caused the tornado. He said he doesn't think so - the God he knows doesn't operate that way. But the important thing, he said, was that even in the moment that the tornado touched down, God was working to bring healing in their lives and in the life of the church.

"I am grieving, but God is bringing healing to me," Voorhaar said. "You are grieving, but God is and will bring healing to you as well."

In the spring of 1988, for the first Easter after the death of Voorhaar's son, a friend gave him a stole to wear over his robes. On one side is a cross and the word Hallelujah. On the other side are embroidered butterflies of different colors.

The butterfly, Voorhaar said, undergoes a tremendous transformation in its life before it emerges as a beautiful creature, and it symbolizes the new life God makes possible. To transform the McDonough auditorium into a sanctuary, Voorhaar put up posters of purple and orange and yellow butterflies around the stage and the walls.

"This butterfly stole, whenever I wear it, is a sign of hope," he said. "As we gather in this place, as we see butterflies displayed here, let this for us be a symbol of hope."

After the service, most of the several hundred in the audience drove in a caravan to the church property and gathered for prayer in the parking lot, strewn with rubble and broken glass.

Mary Jane Coleman, United Methodist district superintendent for the area, and Felton Edwin May, resident bishop of the church's Baltimore-Washington Conference, came yesterday to pray with the congregation and to pledge the assistance of the church's relief organization.

"Look at what God has saved you from," May said. "What is it that God has saved you for? To be a beacon of light on that corner. I have it on good authority that steeple is going to be replaced, bigger than it's ever been."

He brought $500 from his office to help make it so.

Ultimately, however, yesterday's lesson was not about rebuilding but remembering.

Standing in the parking lot with his congregation gathered around, Voorhaar called on members to "think of experiences you had with God and with each other every time you've been in that fellowship hall or that sanctuary. What is important for us as a people of God is not this building. What is important is the spiritual experience we've had together."

Mary B. Norris, the church's treasurer, grew up in the church. She held her mother's funeral there and the funeral of a son who died four years ago. She said she shares a lot of history with the building and thanks God that the sanctuary, at least, is sound. "It makes you realize how much it meant to you," she said. "How much it does mean to us."

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