How the St. Peter Tornado Made Me a Better Man

St. Peter Tornado

Trees uprooted by the St. Peter Tornado, courtesy of the St. Peter Herald

It’s been 15 years today since a tornado cut a huge swath through St. Peter, MN. I’ve written previously about where I was the night it happened – I was on my way back from my grandfather’s funeral in Texas. There was an outpouring of aid from the surrounding communities and a glut of volunteers. I did little aside from drive past, gawking at the destruction; the once majestic trees that lined the lined 169 through downtown were gone. I had other things to do and manual labor had never been my cup of tea. I was working long hours and was active in the Community Education program teaching MS Office, Windows, and HTML.

That summer I was working 100+ hour weeks doing two jobs – Web Designer/Account Manager from 7-3 (eating at my desk) and Tutor/Counselor/Instructor at Upward bound from 3:15-10:30 with full days on the weekends driving kids around or helping them confront their fears on the ropes course. It was intensely rewarding, but I knew that I needed to find another outlet – another way to make a difference in the community.

A few weeks later I had a meeting with my financial adviser who was the president of the local Junior Chamber (Jaycee) chapter. They were having a membership initiative and she gave me the hard sell. I took the membership slip back with me to my office and it sat there staring at me. At the time I was an agnostic and so the first sentence of the creed stuck in my craw – “We believe that faith in God gives meaning and purpose to human life.” It wasn’t faith in something greater than yourself, it was specifically faith in “God.” Like our national motto and pledge of allegiance which were changed in the 1950s to reference “God” as a bulwark against the spread of communism, I learned that the creed had added that line in roughly the same timeline.

After some internal back and forth, I signed the application, wrote out my check, and headed upstairs to drop it off. I told her that I was submitting my membership but I wasn’t promising to recite the creed exactly as it was written (in truth on multiple occasions I mouthed the first line just like I would fake singing when I would go to church with my parents). I told her how in my estimation, if there was an all-powerful deity, lying to him/her to make other people feel comfortable was a no-no. I also probably went on about my favorite philosophical rant about how only an atheist could truly do good because a theist believes that the good they do will be rewarded in the afterlife, so they’re just being selfish like putting money in the bank for a later day.

As a new member, the expectation was that I should run a project. She had just the one picked out – Rake the Town. I was to promote the event to the membership and convince a number of them to join me in raking 4 yards in St. Peter (evidently all of Mankato was covered by the time I called in). It was a chilly day and I arrived in advance of the team. I was nervous – while I was comfortable leading students from Upward Bound and gamers (first two-term president of the college gaming club), regular people were sometimes intimidating.

By the time we were finishing up the last yard, I was exhausted and questioning why I was out here and why I had joined. It was about that time that the owner of the house came out to thank us. There were tears in her eyes and I wasn’t sure why – it wasn’t a big yard and it took us about 10 minutes to do. Then she told us about how the day after the tornado she hadn’t known what she would do until people showed up and started picking up her yard for her. She was reliving that moment and so excited to see that people would exhibit this level of kindness for someone they didn’t even know. I could tell she was having a hard time coping with the emotion and we were also experiencing it with her so several of us exchanged hugs with her before leaving for the day.

That moment made me feel a bit like a superhero, getting me in touch with my dream job from childhood. If I hadn’t been such a slacker and gotten yards in Mankato, I don’t know if I would have stuck with the organization. I’ve faded in and out of the organization a number of times when I felt like I was sacrificing too much of my time and career, but I’m back again, helping out the state organization as a trustee for the foundation. It’s a rush to hang out with people who are inspired to change their communities.