Mississippi, Texas Episcopalians rebuild family home

July 25, 2011

Recently, members of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas worked to rebuild the home of the Morris family of Smithville, Mississippi. The Morrises are victims of the April tornadoes that swept across portions of Mississippi and Alabama. The EF5 tornado that struck Smithville destroyed almost every business and killed 15 people in the town of less than 900 people.

Wade Morris was changing his bandages that April afternoon when the tornado warnings began to sound. Just a few weeks earlier he had suffered severe burns to his arms, face and torso in a grease fire. His wounds required painful skin grafts. Two weeks after his accident, he convinced doctors to release him to be with his wife Jennifer for the birth to their third child, daughter Molly.

As his sister, Michelle, changed his bandages on April 27, the storm bore down on Smithville. Wade and his family were pelted with rocks and debris as they ran to a neighbor's storm shelter When they emerged, injured people screamed for help all around. Dead bodies were found in fields and ditches and the Morris home was one of many that were completely lost.

Unable to work with debilitating burns and now homeless with a 10-day old child, the future seemed dark for Wade and his family. But as news of their story spread, hope returned. Wade's aunt, the Rev. Judy Morris, is the associate rector of St. Peter's by the Lake of Brandon, Mississippi, and she relayed the story to the Rev. Paul Stephens of All Saints', Tupelo, the closest Episcopal parish to Smithville. Stephens teamed with Habitat for Humanity, Tupelo, and Episcopal Relief & Development to create the plans for a two-week blitz build for the Morris family, which began on July 9.

"People always ask me ‘Are Wade and Jennifer a part of your parish? Are they Episcopalians? Why are you doing this?'" Stephens said in his Sunday sermon. The Morris family attends a local Baptist church in Smithville. "I just say ‘They need our help.'"

Six workers from the Diocese of Texas, led by Archdeacon Russ Oechsel arrived in Tupelo July 15 to help with the rebuild for the final week. Oechsel first met the Morrises in May while working with the diocesan emergency spiritual care teams. The Texans joined Mississippi Episcopalians and Habitat workers from Tupelo and Fulton, Mississippi, to build a home for the Morrises.

On Saturday, Wade arrived with his right and left arms bandaged, and he walked around the site shaking hands and thanking all of the workers.

"I really appreciate the work y'all are doing out here," he said. "They have made a lot of progress in just a little bit of time. I hate that I can't be out there working with y'all."

Wade visited the site just about every day against medical advice. The yearning to pick up a hammer was evident in his face as he explained that he was "a hands-on type of guy."

"This kind of thing doesn't happen to us," he said. "I really don't know why we deserve this any more than all of these other people."

On Tuesday Wade had to return to a Memphis, Tennessee, hospital to have staples removed from his right arm. That afternoon, his mother and grandmother visited the worksite, and were amazed at the progress.

"You have no idea," said Wade's mother through tears as she toured the home. "You just don't know how much this means."

One of the groups helping was from St. John's, Pascagoula, MS, a parish that was devastated by Hurricane Katrina just six years ago.

"We know what this kind of suffering is about," said Pat Barfield, St. John's senior warden. "We wanted to return the favor by paying it forward."
Habitat, Tupelo, put aside four other projects in order begin this blitz-build.

"We've worked with the Episcopal Church before, and we wanted to do some work here but didn't really have a way to do it," said Donna Jarrell, director of Habitat, Tupelo. "When Paul [Stephens] called us, we said ok. We'd really like to do more."

Stephens seized the opportunity for his parish to make a difference for a family in need, and found that many of the pieces fell into place rather quickly. The land for home was donated by Wade's sister, and donations from other parishes and organizations flowed in following the tornado.
Members of All Saints were also excited about the opportunity to get their hands dirty.

"I have had several All Saints parishioners tell me how grateful they were that Paul [Stephens] was pushing them out into the world and out of their pews," Oechsel said. "I just love it!"

Stephens used his Sunday sermon to drive home the point that everyone had the ability to help, whether that was picking up a hammer, cooking a meal or making a donation.

"When we are willing to share time, talents or treasure to support a project like this for a family that needs our help, we are making a statement against the selfishness in our world," he said. "We don't have much time to brighten the hearts of those around us. Be quick to love and make haste to be kind."

The Morrises will be moving in soon.

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