JOPLIN, Mo. — With President of the United States Barack Obama and Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon sitting in the front row of a packed auditorium at Sunday's Joplin Community Memorial Service, it was Rev. Aaron Brown of St. Paul's United Methodist Church of Joplin who provided words of comfort to a city of grieving souls.
Brown, whose own church suffered damage to more than 30 percent of its building, offered the community service's message and told the audience in attendance and watching live on television that "death does not get the last word. Death doesn't win — ever. Even when it looks like death wins, it doesn't get the last word. Life wins. Life wins."
Brown, Gov. Nixon and President Obama offered words of inspiration as the city of Joplin and the four-state area begins the healing process after a May 22 EF5 tornado shook the region to its core. The tornado claimed 139 lives, injured hundreds more and damaged or destroyed approximately 8,000 structures in the heart of the city.
During his address to those in attendance at the community service, President Obama said many of the storm's victims were asking the simple question, "Why?"
"Today, we keep in our prayers the ones who are still missing, and their families during this time of pain," Obama told a crowd of approximately 2,000 who packed every seat of the Taylor Performing Arts Center on the campus of Missouri Southern State University.
Obama's remarks came after he viewed the damage in Joplin from high above on Air Force One, as well as surveying the path of destruction on the ground in the neighborhoods of the city with Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon and other federal, state and city officials.
"The question we are all asking is, 'Why?'" Obama continued. "Why our town? Why our home? Why my son, or husband, or wife, or sister, or friend? Why? You can't know when a terrible storm will strike, or where, or the severity of the devastation it may cause. We can't know why we are tested with the loss of a loved one, or the loss of a home. These things are beyond our power to control, but that does not mean we are powerless in the face of adversity. How we respond when the storm strikes is up to us. How we live in the aftermath of tragedy and heartache is within our control. It is within these moments, through our actions, that we often see why life is worth living in the first place.
"In the last week, that is what Joplin not just taught Missouri, not just taught America, but has taught the world… The world saw how Joplin responded."
Obama spoke about how Missouri Southern State University turned into a makeshift hospital, and how residents used their own pick-up trucks as ambulances to carry the injured. He spoke about the giving spirit of local restaurants and businesses through donations of food, items and services.
"Through all of this you have displayed a simple truth, through heartache and tragedy no one is a stranger," Obama said, followed by a large round of applause from the crowd.
Obama praised the heroic efforts of Dean Wells, the electrical department manager at Home Depot, and Chris Lewis, manager of the Pizza Hut restaurant on Range Line Road, who both lost their lives saving others as the tornado bore down on their businesses.
"There are heroes all around us, all the time," Obama said. "In the wake of this tragedy, let us live up to their example and make each day count. We must live with that same compassion that they demonstrated in their final hour."
Obama said rebuilding what has been lost will not be easy. He said residents must be asking themselves, "where to begin, how to start?"
"There will be moments where after the shock has worn off, you will feel alone," Obama said. "There is no doubt in my mind that Joplin will rebuild. As president, I can promise your country will be there with you every single step of the way. We are not going anywhere."
Prior to Obama's remarks, Missouri Gov. Nixon offered words of support and encouragement to his fellow Missourians.
"That storm, of the likes that we have never seen, has brought forth a spirit of resilience the likes of which we also have never seen," Nixon said. "What our nation and world have witnessed this week is the spirit of Joplin, Mo. You have given love thy neighbor a new meaning."
Nixon said God has given Joplin residents a mission to build their community back stronger.
"We are not just going to build it back the way it was, but to make it a better place," Nixon said. "There is work to do. God has said, 'show me,' so now it is time to show him. The people of Missouri were born for this mission. We are famously stubborn, practical, impatient, but whatever may divide us, we come together in crisis. No storm, no fire, no flood can turn us from our path."
"In the days to come, when the satellite trucks leave town, Joplin stories will disappear from the front pages," Nixon said. "But the tragedy will not disappear from our lives. We will still be in Joplin, together, preparing for the long journey out of darkness and into light. We will need more hands, more tools and more Good Samaritans every step of the way."
At the end of his speech, Rev. Brown assured that "God didn't do this to Joplin to punish us. Read the book, Jesus took that punishment for us. This happened because life on this side of eternity is unpredictable, chaotic and broken… God loves you and God loves Joplin.
"His mission now is for us to get busy — get busy serving and get busy rebuilding."