Band’s tour takes in storm-hit areas of nation
By Mark Haney
The Catholic Times
FOWLER — In the midst of death and destruction, Noelle Garcia found some miracles, both large and small.
The nationally known recording artist and her husband, Portland St. Patrick Parish youth minister David McHugh, took their band to Memphis, Tenn., Adamsville, Ala., and Joplin, Mo., late in June on a tour to raise money for those three area hit hardest by a series of spring floods and tornadoes.
They started in Memphis, raising $800 for Catholic Charities. On the way there, they were booked to play a couple of concerts in Alabama — one at St. Patrick Parish and one at the local Catholic Charities office. Together, those raised more than $1,400.
“That particular parish (St. Patrick) was really amazing,” she said. “They had their big parish festival coming up the weekend the tornadoes hit. They called their pastor, who was out of town, and the pastor authorized that all the food that was supposed to be for their parish festival be donated to the first responders. And then they turned their gym into a relief center.”
Even though the All In Tour came in June, the damage still was very evident.
“We did get to tour all of the damage,” she said. “In the nicer parts of town the cleanup is pretty well under way. But in the impoverished areas, people are pretty much on their own. The city will pay to demolish your house but it won’t pay for debris removal. You have to do that on your own. In a lot of those places it appears there has been very little cleanup. That was very eye-opening.
“Another thing we didn’t realize was how many tornadoes had hit. There were more than 300 tornadoes in one day. All E-3 to E-5 strength. The devastation was unbelievable.”
The Alabama parish is helping people in 30 tornado-ravaged cities, including some of its own.
“They had some parishioners who had lost everything but the clothes on their backs,” she said. “One family, just in a last-minute kind of thought, put on their bicycle helmets. The house fell on them — they were in the basement — and cracked their helmets. So if they had not had on their helmets, they would have died.”
A man, she said, also lost his wife, who had died guarding their 7-year-old from the tornado.
“The church secretary told us that before the tornadoes hit she had been praying that now that she had some free time she wanted to know what more she could do for God,” Garcia said. “She said it was interesting how God answered her prayer. That she can now be of use, organizing this effort and arranging for donations. They have made a huge difference, just with their parish, and they are not huge. They are doing it without funding from the diocese or from Catholic Charities. This parish has said, ‘we need to help.’ And they are.”
The concert for Catholic Charities, she said, “was not a well-organized concert. We showed up and nobody knew what was going on. A few families came out and they had a great time and we had a great time, we just didn’t raise a whole lot of money.”
From Alabama, they traveled to Joplin, Mo.
“The damage was absolutely unbelievable,” she said. “It was just miles and miles of pure destruction. One of the Catholic hospitals there is now operating out of tents and trailers. All that is left of St. Mary Catholic Church is a big iron cross. It was really moving to see this cross standing in the midst of pile and piles of concrete and destruction.”
Again, survivors spoke to them at the concert.
“We talked to several of the survivors,” she said. “A mother and daughter told us their family had heard the sirens, went to the tornado shelter in their basement and despite having a steel door and surrounded by concrete block, the dad still had to hold the door shut because it kept blowing open. That is how powerful this storm was.
“They now live in a smaller home but they said it is nice because they bump into each other more now. ‘We’re not all in our rooms, on our computers, everybody isolated. We just feel grateful for each other, that we survived.’
Then there was this doctor. His car blew off the road. He was able to jump out and run the rest of the way home and get into his basement and survive.”
The destruction has had unexpected benefits for some.
“We asked people: How are you keeping your faith during this time? They said, ‘Actually our faith has gotten stronger because we now enjoy the important things in life,’” she said. “’We’re not so materialistic.’ One family had a really lighthearted perspective. They said, ‘Well, we were looking for a new home before the tornadoes hit so now we don’t have so much to pack.’”
Amid the damage and destruction, however, there was a significant event.
“In Joplin, this homeless man came up,” she said, “and he emptied out his pockets of all his coins and a few wrinkled dollars bills and said he wanted this to go to the survivors. That act of kindness and sacrifice just kind of made all of us — even though we are doing what we are doing — realize what we were doing was very small compared to this guy’s sacrifice of about $4.”
On their way into Joplin — they’d left Alabama at 4 a.m. to get there — they were stopped by police for having a headlight out. They didn’t know it had failed.
“I was driving and I said, ‘We’re raising money for you guys so please don’t give us at ticket,’” said Garcia, youth minister at Most Holy Family Parish in Fowler. “And she said, ‘No, no, I wasn’t going to give you a ticket. I just wanted you to know your headlight was out.’”
The money raised in Adamsville went to the parish’s own relief efforts. They raised more than $2,400 on the closing concert at St. Mary Parish in Lowell. “So we gave a good portion of that money to Catholic Charities in Alabama.”
In the end the tour raised more than $7,000, including more than $2,400 at a closing concert at St. Mary Parish in Lowell, reached by driving all through the night after leaving Joplin.
“It was really busy but everything just fell into place, perfectly,” she said. “Honestly, we could not have asked for better host families — people we have never met before hosted us and fed us.
“The whole trip was so filled with the blessings of God. I told my husband to be prepared for big challenges to come up because when we set out on a mission there can be a lot of spiritual warfare and things like that. Instead everything felt anointed and blessed. We didn’t have any issues. Even the heat down South wasn’t too bad.”
That doesn’t mean everything went perfectly. There remains, she said, some vestiges of Catholic prejudice in the South.
“There still is a lot of Catholic prejudice down South,” she said. “The one point I was trying to get through to people is this was not a particular belief system. This was all about all us being part of the human race and we are all called to help each other, above and beyond any kind of doctrine. Unfortunately, there were a lot of closed minds we encountered.
“We also didn’t get a ton of time between spots so we weren’t able to do as many side-of-the-road gigs. We played mostly in parishes, some of which actually booked us as we were on the road.”