April 26th, 2009
There’s little that scares Kansans more than a good tornado. And, truth be told, there’s little that excites us more than a good tornado, either. After all, we know it’s going to be good for a story.
Here on the plains, it is easy to remember how powerful nature really is. Weather sweeps in from all directions with little to hinder it, and tonight was a night few will forget.
The 300-member Kansas Mennonite Men’s Chorus, of which I’m a member, had a concert tonight at 7, and we had a practice starting at 3. We sang in the beautiful old Memorial Hall on the campus of Bethel College.
I need to describe the building a bit for you. It was built in 1938, in the day before auditorium designers decided you need to remove the outdoors. Three sides are full of windows, and it’s just a few feet from the front doors into the auditorium itself. There is no air conditioning, so in a very humid day like today, every possible door and window is open. To stand on the stage and look out over the audience, you see light coming in from every direction, extremely bright light when there’s lightning.
It’s been storming all afternoon. Our rehearsal featured thunderclaps, driving rain that was very audible inside, flickering lights. It was, in all honesty, a bit exciting.
At about 6:35, word came that a tornado warning had been issued for the county. A few minutes later, about 20 minutes before start time, sirens were activated and the decision was made to evacuate to safety in the building’s basement and an adjoining building.
I, and a number of college students singing with the choir, wound up as a sort of impromptu ushers, directing people to the best place for safety and helping to get people into space efficiently. It was rather stuffy in those basement hallways, but it was also quite loud due to all the excited visiting going on. The KMMC concerts aren’t usually like this.
A few minutes later, word came that the tornado warning was canceled. I went down the steps, yelled out the news, and got a big cheer.
People poured back upstairs. We got started a few minutes late, but nobody quite cared. A group of brass players was going to provide the prelude, but their first trumpet player had to leave at the last minute because his tool shed had blown over. They covered for him well in the concert though.
When I got home later, Terah saw me and said, “I thought they’d cancel the concert because of the tornado.” I just had to laugh, and pointed out, “This is Kansas. After a tornado evacuation, it just got everybody more excited for the program!” (Of course, had there been a strike, it would have been a different story.)
And it was a great program. There was excitement in the air. And it was incredibly hot and stuffy on the stage with 300 men. I had sweat running down my face.
The rain and the thunder continued, sometimes improving the program.
About halfway through, we sang Prayer of the Children, written by Kurt Bestor, someone that was terribly saddened by the destruction during the civil war in the Balkans. The lyrics go, in part:
Can you hear the prayer of the children
on bended knee, in the shadow of an unknown room?
Empty eyes with no more tears to cry,
turning heavenward to the light.
Cryin’ Jesus, help me
to see the morning light of one more day. . .
Can you hear the voice of the children
softly pleading for silence in their shattered world?. . .
Angry guns preach a gospel full of hate
blood of the innocent on their hands.
For when darkness clears, I know you’re near,
brining peace again.
Can you hear
the prayer of the children?
And when we get to the last phrase, there’s a long rest after “Can you hear”. We sang it the phrase, and with perfect timing as we paused for the rest, was a loud clap of thunder. And after the last word of the song, total silence. Nobody moved for a few seconds, and then applause rang out.
A couple of years ago, I was in the audience at a concert in the same building. Ominous weather lurked that day too. Before the concert started, the director said something like this, before giving information about evacuation procedures, should they be needed:
“We are plains people. We are privileged to see the awesome power and beauty of the weather and nature up close every day. If we should be a little too privileged today, here’s what we’ll do…”