It’s not uncommon for a church to open its doors to accommodate an occasional group of overnight travelers. It is uncommon for those doors to stay open for more than a year. Byers Avenue UMC in Joplin first offered shelter to a vol- unteer team coming to assist the community with tornado recovery on May 26, 2011, just a few days after the tornado hit. Since then the church has housed more than 2,000 people.
The church has housed up to 140 people at a time. It’s located on the edge of the heart of the damage zone. The church received some tornado damage, but was able to be up and running imme- diately after the tornado. It quick- ly became the inn with room, and has had that role ever since.
“It’s been easier this year,” said Rev. Max Raney. “We have more volunteers staying here this year, but they are more organized. Last year was chaos. We were shooting from the hip.”
Sometimes the volunteers just camp out at the church, but some- times they are also able to take part in worship there.
“We just had a group of 92 volunteers here from Texas A&M (university), and we had an actual line to get into the sanctuary for worship. I had to go around to the back door to get in place in time,” Raney said. “I’m glad none of our people are concerned about getting to sit in their regular pew, because that morning those places were all full.”
The church has hosted teams from coast to coast, and is often complimented on its hospitality.
“We had a group here from Colorado that told me they had been trying to follow Bishop Schnase’s idea of “radical hospital- ity,” but when they experienced our hospitality, they saw that they still had a long way to go,” Raney said. “We want people to feel at home here, just like you would want a guest in your home to be comfortable.”
The role has changed the concept of church within the con- gregation drastically, Raney said. The church had previously been seeking ways to be in mission, and now it has ample opportunity within its own walls. Members of the church have donated fresh baked goods, provided hygiene supplies for guests, established a towel service with the local shel- tered workshop.
“Everyone in the church has been given the opportunity to step up and find something to do to help,” Raney said.
Some people refer to the church as Motel Byers, and Raney has caught himself referring to the classrooms as bedrooms. In addition to hosting the traveling volunteers, the church has also opened its facility to the Faith Assembly church, which has been worshiping at Byers Avenue on Sundays and Wednesdays since last summer. Byers Avenue has continued to fully function as a church, and has not had to cancel any event. It still hosts weddings, and serves as a drop-off center for the Rainbow Network ministry and the Festival of Sharing.
“Everyone just shifts their schedules as they need to,” Raney said. “Throughout all of this, I haven’t heard one single complaint from any of our people. Their atti- tude is ‘What can I do to help?’.”
Raney is a Joplin native. It’s been hard for him to see the high school he attended razed, and Franklin Technical School, which he both attended and taught at, lost. But when Dudes donuts reopened and he went there, he reflected on what was really lost, and what was not.
“I thought then how it wasn’t the donuts I was missing, it was the people and the relationships,” Raney said. “Seeing things rebuilt help all of us with roots here.”