National News

As They Recover From Tornado Devastation In Arkansas, Catholic Women See Joy, Hope In Easter

Father Patrick Friend, chaplain and spiritual guidance counselor of Little Rock Catholic High School for Boys in Arkansas, helps to salvage belongings from a friend’s home April 1, 2023, in the aftermath of a tornado. Powerful storms swept through a large swath of the nation the evening of March 31 into April 1, unleashing deadly tornadoes and carving a path of destruction that killed at least 24 people in the South, Midwest and Mid-Atlantic. (OSV News photo)

By Aprille Hanson Spivey

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (OSV News) — When Susej Thompson, 46, arrived at her Walnut Valley neighborhood in Little Rock, police barricades had already been set up following a devastating EF-3 tornado Friday afternoon, March 31.

As she made the trek on foot to her home amid the mud and downed trees, first stopping to help a deaf woman and her children try to find their way back home, she soon saw the shell of what had been her family home for nine years — the blown-off roof, empty window frames, and family mementos and memories spilling out onto the lawn.

In the same neighborhood, Angela Leatherwood, 39, didn’t have to wonder much about what her house might look like. She knew the damage would be severe as she watched insulation and debris fly around her and her eight children, all huddled in the stairwell of the home they moved into a year prior.

Residents in Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, Cabot, Wynne and other hard-hit cities are working to rebuild their lives following catastrophic twisters, with at least one reaching winds up to 165 mph and stretching 32 miles, according to the National Weather Service office in North Little Rock.

But Thompson and Leatherwood, two Catholic women who each experienced the devastation differently in the same neighborhood just a week before Good Friday, are clinging to the same Bible verse: “The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” (Job 1:21).

For the past couple of years, Thompson, faith formation and music director at Our Lady of the Holy Souls Church in Little Rock, has been on a journey of healing. A widow following the 2013 death of her husband, she has been a pillar of strength for her five children, Jared Timothy, 24, Ana Mercía, 22, Stephen Hunt, 19, Titus Nathan, 18, and Jacob Andrew, 16. In early March, she suffered a stroke in her right eye, losing most of her vision.

“I’m not 100 percent. I’ve been sleeping a lot and trying not to be depressed about all that stuff,” she said.

“Since 2010, every Holy Week something happens,” she told the Arkansas Catholic, newspaper of the Little Rock Diocese. “There’s some kind of burden, something to offer up, a struggle or painful experience of some kind. But that’s been a gift.”

When the tornado came through Little Rock, she was at Holy Souls, practicing music.

“I had no idea it was going to be like that,” she said, even offering her home as a safe haven for a friend she knew whose house had suffered some damage after the storm had ceased. Thompson never anticipated her home would be uninhabitable. Three of her sons still live at home, but none were there during the tornado

“It was just devastating. And so scary, and all I wanted was to find my dog,” Thompson said, whose Yorkie named Poe was found shaking amid the debris, while his brother, Finn, was nowhere to be found. “Looking at your family pictures on the ground and just leaving there and thinking, ‘I don’t have a home anymore.'”

People work on a badly damaged home in Little Rock, Ark., April 2, 2023, in the aftermath of a tornado that tore through the South and Midwest the previous day. (OSV News photo)

Thompson was reunited several hours later with Finn, who a neighbor had picked up.

“There are seasons of life where you can’t quite figure out what God’s plan is. I’ve been practicing good self-care and working on my healing and letting go of things. It’s been funny; I’ve been trying to let go of things and all of the sudden you don’t have anything to hold onto,” Thompson said April 1, a day after the tornado. “There was this feeling of peace last night. I had been worried about many things. I was sitting in my car because it’s the only thing I have and thinking, ‘God, I love you so much. I just need you to know that.'”

Leatherwood and her husband, Nolan, have been parishioners at Christ the King Church in Little Rock for 17 years, converting to Catholicism after they became engaged. Since then, they have been blessed with eight children: Tobias, 14, Naomi, 13, Simon, 11, Sophia, 10, Colette, 8, Clara, 6, Gemma, 4, and Edith, 2.

When the tornado hit their home, her husband was at work in downtown Little Rock. She ushered her children and their terrier puppy, Linus, into the stairwell, never expecting it to hit their home “because it almost never hits in the middle of town.”

Immediately after she heard the meteorologist warn West Little Rock residents to take the storm seriously, their power went out.

“I told the kids, ‘Remember we have the generator.’ Then all of (a) sudden, chaos. It was loud, the windows were breaking, we heard a tree fall, lots of loud crashes. The younger ones started screaming. I started yelling the Our Father and Hail Mary as loud as I could. Then the older ones joined me. We said several Hail Marys, the St. Michael prayer,” Leatherwood said.

“When they say it sounds like a freight train, I never knew what that meant, but now I understand,” she added. “My ears popped; there was a ton of pressure. Then this roar. First, the insulation started blowing into the stairwell. We could hear glass shattering and coming into the hallway behind us.”

The family stayed sheltered a few minutes after everything stopped. They soon went outside to check on neighbors and check on their own damage — they lost the master bedroom and sustained significant damage to the older girls’ room, living room and kitchen. But the house itself is still standing.

“I don’t even really know how to put it into words. You just kind of stare in disbelief,” Leatherwood said April 3. “I was trying to keep a calm face for the kids to stay calm, and kind of internally freaking out a little. There was a tree in my room.”

But they soon came together to do what they do best as a family — pray.

“In that moment, I knew what we needed more than anything was God’s protection and they needed to be reminded of that. ‘We’ve got guardian angels, nine here right now,'” she told them. “Once everything calmed down, we were praying the rosary.”

Despite the overwhelming loss, both women knew their Good Friday crosses would soon turn to Easter joy.

Among other developments for Thompson, her daughter, Ana, took charge, handling the overwhelming onslaught of messages, saying on Facebook, “It’s really all crazy to think about. I just watched my family lose everything. And as the older sister and only daughter, all I want to do is come in and save my family. Protect them. But this is big. Even for me.”

Students from Catholic High School mobilized quickly — two of her sons are alums, and two still attend. Students and close friends were there to help Thompson collect what was salvageable to move into a rental house the next day, offered by a Catholic High alum.

Ana picked up furniture and necessities from Junktique, the annual rummage sale fundraiser for the high school April 1.

Father Patrick Friend, the high school’s chaplain, helped that Saturday at Thompson’s house, adding that CHS students helped countless others over the weekend as well
“I think that at the center of all of this is the mystery of the cross,” the priest said. “The cross has become such a background image in our mind, and the reality that it portrays is sometimes lost on us. That was a horrific death, a horrible moment, but when we look at the cross, we’re filled with love and hope.”

Leatherwood, who is active in the Walking with Purpose women’s Bible study, said her sisters in Christ rallied around them, offering meals, prayers and support. A Christ the King Church parishioner the family has never met is loaning the Leatherwoods their home.

It’s in tragedy that these two families, and all who suffered in the tornado, are united even more to Christ this Easter.

“This is hard. It’s OK, and it’s going to be better on the other side,” Leatherwood said. “It’s helped us to feel the sacrifice of Lent a little bit more and a little more connection to what Jesus must have felt.”