“God was right there, wrapped all around me. He was insulation between me and the world.”
Chris Salter and her family were hovering in the basement of their home across from the old Missouri State Penitentiary.
Their ears started popping as dust began hovering in the air.
Then came the cacophony of century-old bricks and timbers being torn to splinters.
Then, all at once, silence.
The Salters ventured upstairs and out to the front yard, where bursts of lightning cast the only illumination upon the devastation.
An EF-3 tornado had buffeted their neighborhood with up to 160-mph winds, yet they had escaped with their lives fully intact.
“I have never felt more blessed in my life,” said Mrs. Salter, a member of Immaculate Conception parish in Jefferson City.
“It’s all so simple,” she said. “Our daughter, our pride and joy, without so much as a cut on her. My husband, my mother-in-law, none of us hurt. How can you have your house destroyed around you and look at your family and not be grateful?”
Weather forecasters at KRCG-TV, where Mrs. Salter works, told her earlier on May 22 that worrisome weather was on the horizon.
The family had witnessed numerous other storms since moving to Lafayette Street some 20 years ago, and this one seemed no different.
“But something was different inside of me,” said Mrs. Salter.
She got a sudden burst of energy, carried some cumbersome objects downstairs and made sure the family had a clear path to the basement.
“Then, like any Missourian, I went out on the front porch and watched the storm roll in,” she said.
It went from raining, to raining hard, to “kind of a feeling that your life was in danger,” to “Get inside! Get inside now!” she said.
Her daughter Grace and her mother-in-law, Linda Treacle, followed her to the basement.
Her husband Jim was determined not to let a storm ruin a good night’s sleep.
He eventually changed his mind and headed for the basement, arriving about 30 seconds before the tornado shredded the roof.
“It looked like a bomb had gone off,” said Mrs. Salter.
The porch from the duplex they own next door had been detached and carried in one piece to the middle of a roundabout a block away.
Yet, the 3-foot statue of the Blessed Mother below the porch had not moved an inch.
“I think God knew from the beginning that we were going to be a part of this,” said Mrs. Salter. “If there is one thing I can take out of this, it’s that in life, I am not the one in control. You have to have faith and trust in God.”
The next day brought blessings anew.
“I have never seen a community so loving, so kind and so willing to help,” she said. “People I barely knew were so courteous and loving.”
Father Donald Antweiler and Deacon Kenny Wildhaber of Immaculate Conception parish showed up at the house, asking what they could do to help.
Asked for prayers, they also rolled up their sleeves and started moving debris to the curb.
“I couldn’t believe what I was seeing in my front yard!” said Mrs. Salter.
They kept at it for over two hours.
“I told them, ‘I cannot thank you enough!’” she said. “Father said, ‘I’m just thankful that you let me help.’”
Others came to assist with the clean-up.
“I never got their names,” she said. “I never even got to thank them.”
A transplant from the St. Louis area, she felt at home.
“I just felt like I belonged, and like they loved me,” she said. “To me, it was God’s way of reminding me of His love through tragedy.”
Mrs. Salter was raised Catholic but had given up the practice of her faith a long time ago.
She had dabbled in New Age mysticism before realizing the danger and quickly joining the Christian congregation her brother belongs to.
She moved to Jefferson City in 1999.
The Salters were beginning to think they could not have children when God blessed them with a daughter, whom they named Grace.
She just completed eighth grade at Immaculate Conception School.
As a mother, Mrs. Salter became determined to become more loving, respectful and accountable to her Creator.
“God gave us a tremendous gift, and I wanted to thank Him and let Him know that I love Him,” she said. “I wanted to start making better decisions for Him and my family.”
She started going to Mass every Sunday and to weekday morning Mass and Rosary at Immaculate Conception whenever she could.
God started helping her become more of what He intends her to be.
“I’m still me,” she insisted. “It’s only through His grace that I can be more than I am.”
Lost and found
Eager to be a full-fledged member of her parish, Mrs. Salter called Father Patrick Dolan, the pastor at that time, and asked him to obtain copies of her sacrament records from her home parish in the St. Louis archdiocese.
Turns out, there were records of both of her brothers being baptized and receiving their First Holy Communion, but not her.
“That’s how God drew me into (the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults),” she said. “He wanted me to understand why I was becoming Catholic again.”
She gathered strength and encouragement from her fellow RCIA participants, especially Mike Finkelstein, who shared his scholarship and deep understanding of Christianity’s Judaic roots.
She received the sacraments of initiation that Easter.
“The Eucharist is my world,” she said. “When I have the Eucharist in the morning, I have great days. When I don’t, my days aren’t as good.”
She is convinced that God always intended for her to encounter Him in His one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church.
“The Catholic Church is an answer to all my insecurities, to all my doubts, to my bad moods,” she said. “It’s the answer to understanding other people, to understanding my past, to understanding my future — it’s the answer to everything.”
She agrees that she shares an unmistakable ardor with many others who have come into the Church through RCIA.
“Maybe it’s the difference between the Prodigal Son and his brother,” she said, referring to Jesus’s parable in Luke 15:11-32. “I can tell you this much: After what he went through, the Prodigal Son is a changed man.”
One giant leap
The Salters are staying with friends until they can secure other housing.
In the meantime, Mrs. Salter can’t stop saying “thank You” to God.
“I look around and see that the people I love are alive and healthy,” she said. “That’s what really matters.”
She now holds a deeper appreciation for tornados and tornado warnings, and for weathercasters and first-responders, for friends, neighbors, fellow parishioners and even strangers.
She is convinced that God started preparing her for this moment when she surrendered to believing in Him without being able to understand everything about Him.
“That’s where faith comes in,” she said. “You have to realize that even if you’re the smartest person in the room, you’re not going to get it.
“That is where you take that leap,” she continued. “Do you have another choice? You’re going to get hit by a tornado in some form or another. You will not be in control.
“Do you want to be in that moment without faith?”