Seven children were killed when an EF5 tornado hit Plaza Towers Elementary School in Moore, Oklahoma, on May 20, 2013. They joined a total of 24 victims who lost their lives in this devastating disaster. The question on many people’s lips was, why did the school not have a tornado shelter? But the question central to this documentary is, where was God?
This documentary, now available on Netflix, looks at the role that faith played as the people of Moore pieced their lives back together. Among the survivors interviewed were parents of students who were at Plaza Towers when the tornado struck. Some of their children survived, others didn’t. For religious and nonreligious viewers alike, it might be hard to digest that some of these parents feel that God saved their children’s lives, while other, equally religious parents, tell heartbreaking stories of children who weren’t saved. Rather than answering its central question, the documentary raises another even more pressing one: If God is able to save one life, why didn’t he save all?
This is exactly the question Scott and Stacey McCabe, parents of Nicolas, one of the school children who was killed, mulled over. Scott McCabe witnessed the lifeless body of his only child being pulled from underneath the rubble. In a tearful testimony, the McCabes share their experiences and their most intimate emotions, including anger at God, as well as defeat, inadequacy, and helplessness. They are not alone. All the parents in this documentary who lost a child share the same emotions.
Paradoxically, after a period dominated by anger at God and the whole world, they all have found comfort in their faith and in each other. Scott McCabe, who wasn’t religious before the tornado, joined the church. He and his wife, who, unlike her husband, had been a member of the Baptist church prior to the disaster, have made it their mission to show that God is a loving God, and that there is hope. Of all those interviewed, they seem the most practical. In addition to speaking in public about their spiritual journey, they are also working tirelessly to get storm shelters installed in every Oklahoma school.
Where was God? has a missionary feel and is in many ways a mouthpiece for the Southern Baptist church and its disaster relief efforts. The documentary isn’t particularly well edited. For instance, it repeatedly digresses to discuss personal stories unrelated to the disaster, such as Alcohol Anonymous meetings and abortions. As a result, the documentary loses momentum after about 45 minutes. The remaining 45 minutes drag on, exacerbated by the very slow piano music that accompanies the film. For these reasons it isn’t surprising that Where was God? was not reviewed in any of the mainstream media. Nevertheless, for all its flaws, it is an important documentary for those who want to gain insights into how people find—or struggle to find—comfort in faith in the aftermath of a disaster.
There is a lot of research that looks at religion in disaster situations. For example, Torry (1986), Gillard and Paton (1999) Smith et al. (2000), Schmuck (2000), and Bankoff (2004) all argue that religion may serve as a coping strategy in the face of recurring hazards or disasters among Muslim, Hindu and Christian communities. Others studies examine the role of faith organizations in disaster-risk reduction and disaster response. The studies also emphasize that religious groups, besides garnering the trust of local communities, are usually well integrated within these communities and thus often able to respond to disaster in a very short time span (see, for example Ali, 1992, Bolin and Bolton, 1986, and Fountain et al., 2004, Merli, 2005).
In the case of Moore this certainly rang true: Oklahoma Baptist Disaster Relief was on site immediately. They assisted more than 1200 families, prepared more than 200,000 meals, and purchased 63 homes for underinsured survivors.
This documentary, as supported by disaster research, makes it clear that faith within our society helps its followers cope with disasters. The church is a place where survivors, long after relief organizations and the media have left, can share their trauma and find comfort.