By Shana Adkisson
The Norman Transcript
NORMAN — On May 20, like so many others, Clark Mitchell was glued to the television watching weather reports.
“I was actually scheduled to leave town,” Mitchell said. “I had gone home. I told my wife, ‘We need to go up to the office and take shelter,’” Mitchell said.
When the founding senior pastor of Journey Church called his staff, he realized they were fleeing from the church’s offices in Moore to the church at 3801 Journey Parkway in Norman in order to get away from the storm’s destructive path.
“I went to the church, and just because of my history, I stood out front and watched it (the tornado),” Mitchell said.
That history includes Mitchell, at the age of 9, losing his house to the 1979 tornado in Wichita Falls, Texas.
“Until the Moore tornadoes came through, that was the world’s largest tornado,” Mitchell said. “Our home was destroyed. It’s shaped my response to storms.”
Knowing first-hand the impact that a devastating storm can have on a family, Mitchell knew what had to be done.
“By the time it (the tornado) hit I-35, we had started immobilizing. It all just happened,” Mitchell said.
Before long, and thanks to social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter, word quickly got out that Journey Church was a central hub for all things related to tornado recovery.
“We try to categorize things and we are very practical in everything we do ministry wise or benevolence wise. No. 1, the question became how do we help the first responders? And how do we encourage them, strengthen them or refresh them? And these are questions that if you asked other people, they would say, ‘I don’t know how these questions happened’ because it was more of a process I went through. And the second question was, how do we help the victims immediately and long term? And I think the third question that I went through was how do we help other organizations?” Mitchell said. “One of the first things we did, very simple but very significant, was we catered in a whole meal to the emergency staff to the HealthPlex across the street. All of that started happening well within an hour after it hitting.”
From May 20- Aug. 1, Journey Church became a major location for supplies, shelter and food.
“We had 8,500 volunteers in eight days. As a pastor, there has never been a prouder moment because the church was the church. It didn’t take any motivation, it didn’t take any coercion, people just did what they were supposed to do. We would tweet, ‘We need bread’ and hundreds of loaves of bread would be there within 30 minutes,” Mitchell said. “We ended up having 50,000 square foot distribution space. One of the things that I’m really proud of our people for is that when we did shut down our distribution center a couple of weeks ago, everything we had leftover went to another organization that would utilized it.”
Watching a natural disaster unfold before your very eyes is painful enough. But Mitchell also was dealing with personal pain during the time his church was providing comfort for so many. A few weeks after the tornado, doctors discovered that Mitchell had two ruptured disks in his neck.
“They were ruptured bad enough and putting enough compression on the spinal cord that it was very threatening. We had to go in and replace those ruptured disks,” Mitchell said.
But health issues haven’t been a stranger to Mitchell. Three years ago, Mitchell was told that he had a brain stem tumor, tumors in each of his cranial nerves leading to his ears and a spinal fluid leak. April 12, 2012, Mitchell underwent a craniotomy in attempt to remove the tumor centrally located on his central nervous system. The tumors were in inoperable places and continue to challenge Mitchell’s health. But through all of this, Mitchell still can’t say enough about his congregation.
“Just the space the church gives us and the grace they give us to walk through these health challenges. And the support and encouragement — it’s been phenomenal,” Mitchell said. “The health issue has probably made me work different. I think it’s probably made me more relatable to people. It’s been very visible the challenges I’ve had. It think it’s something the Lord did and is using something challenging to further his gospel. I live to share the gospel. While there is a tremendous amount of physical discomfort and challenges on Sunday, it’s what I live for. I have trouble resting because I have so much fun doing what I do.”
But, despite his pain, Mitchell was very involved in the church’s community outreach following the events of May 20.
“I think one of the things that makes us unique is that we are just involved. Our greatest desire is to shepherd and pastor people. I believe that starts with how I live. Do I have physical challenges? Yes. But everybody else has challenges, too. I feel like it’s my responsibility to live a life that others are expected to live. Unfortunately, because of crises, we can’t quit. Something that I say over and over is that crisis is always current and never convenient. I’m just trying to model for others to be an encouragement for others that while you might be in discomfort or pain or it might look like your life is falling a part, it might be the greatest moment of your life,” Mitchell said.