A man who came to faith in Christ when Samaritan’s Purse responded to a tornado in North Carolina receives the keys to his new house as we celebrate the end of a rebuild project
The last time Johnny Mizelle saw his house it was in the air, flying into the cornfields across the street. A massive twister had hit his home in Bertie County, North Carolina, on April 16 last year, and he had barely survived.
He was watching TV in his living room when his brother Jimmy called to tell him a dangerous storm was headed his way. When he looked outside, he saw a green haze and a black cloud approaching his street.
Johnny sped away in his 1964 Chevy truck—the only thing he had left after the storm besides his life. He looked in his rearview mirror to see the 165 mph winds pick up his home and fling it away.
Twelve people died and 67 homes were destroyed in the EF-3 tornado that hit the small, agricultural town that day. Samaritan’s Purse responded immediately by sending a disaster relief team to help the town recover.
Volunteers from the community and the surrounding towns began pouring in to work with us, and Billy Graham Evangelistic Association rapid response chaplains arrived to minister to tornado victims. One of people we helped was Johnny.
“After the storm, he was lost and seemed devastated,” said Jamie Crumpler, office manager and volunteer coordinator. “He didn’t know what he was going to do. We’d see him around town and he looked sad, and he didn’t have a whole lot to say to anyone.”
When Samaritan’s Purse volunteers arrived to clean debris from Johnny’s property, team leader Hoyle Green told him about the hope available through faith in Jesus. He and BGEA chaplain Jack Dowling prayed with Johnny as he received Christ as his Savior.
“After the storm, I felt like God kept me here for a reason,” Johnny said. “When Samaritan’s Purse came, I accepted Jesus Christ into my heart.”
Although Johnny’s heart had been changed and he had a newfound joy in Christ, he still had no idea where he was going to live. He and his 75-year-old mother, Barbara, were forced to stay with his brother until they could find a new place to live.
Samaritan’s Purse started a project to rebuild houses in Bertie last August. When Johnny was told we were going to give him a new home he said he could barely believe it to be true.
On Aug. 3, after months of hard work by Samaritan’s Purse volunteer teams, he received the keys to his new house—a far nicer structure than his former trailer.
“When a tornado comes, it gives you a feeling you’ve never had before,” Johnny said. “But good things have come. I have a new house now.”
Everyone says that Johnny has become a completely different person.
“Now you can’t wipe the smile off his face,” Jamie said. “When he’s at his house, he looks like a kid at Christmastime.”
Johnny’s house was the ninth we completed during the rebuild project, and the last that we dedicated. Chris and Dianne Freeman were the other homeowners who were able to move into their new place on the last day of the project.
The Freemans also barely survived the tornado. Two large trees fell on top of the utility room they were hiding in, but did not go far enough to crush them. They saw it as a miracle.
“I really know that there is a God now,” Dianne said. “It makes you a stronger person.”
Both Johnny and the Freemans say that the greatest blessing was not getting a new house, but making close friendships with the volunteers and the Samaritan’s Purse staff. Even though the town of Askewville was a tightknit community to begin with, they became even closer after the storm by pulling together to help each other amidst the devastation.
Their willingness to help was so great that we didn’t need to hire a cook, a first for a Samaritan’s Purse U.S. Disaster Relief project. Jamie helped organize church groups to prepare breakfast and dinner for the staff and volunteers every day. Over the course of the year, about 130 people prepared meals in Bertie County.
“It involved the community in a way that normally would not happen,” Jamie said. “All the cooks were sad when their last time came. It was a way they could be involved if they were not able to work on the homes.”
One of the cooks, Mary Alice White, said, “I can’t swing a hammer or saw a piece of wood, but I can bake a cake!”
Another cook, Kathy Cobb, was sad to see the project end.
“I’m going to miss this so much that I can’t stand it,” she said. “I’ve been crying all day. I thank God that I could do it. This helped me a lot. I had lung cancer, a pit bull attacked me, and I had to go on disability. I’ve had all kinds of storms in my life. But doing something useful for someone else made me feel worthwhile again. They thank me for cooking, but the truth is they have blessed me more than anything else. I wouldn’t get up at 4:30 a.m. for any other reason.”
Jeff and Mike Haggard, who prepared breakfast every Saturday for the volunteers, were at the church at 6:30 a.m. to roast a pig all day for the celebration on the last day of the rebuild. Homeowners, volunteers, and staff enjoyed fellowship together while eating barbeque with all the fixings.
“Just a few meals is nothing compared to what Samaritan’s Purse has done here,” Jeff said. “After building all the houses here for the people, this is the least we could do to give back in some way.”
Volunteer Mike Belcher also said he felt more blessed to give to the tornado victims than to receive anything. He rode for 659 miles on his motorcycle from Circleville, Ohio, to Askewville to build homes with Samaritan’s Purse. He worked on all nine houses for 13 weeks—the longest of any volunteer on a rebuild project
“This has been more of a blessing to me than the homeowners,” Mike said. “They treat you like family, not a volunteer or an employee. You don’t get paid anything, except for the blessings.”
He attended six dedication ceremonies, and said his favorite part was seeing the look on the homeowners’ faces when they walk into their brand new houses.
David Crumpler, the pastor of Askewville Baptist Church, our base for the rebuild project, said ultimately it was not about building houses but building up the kingdom of God.
“There is nothing greater than being able to go on mission for Jesus Christ,” he said. “We were able to go onto a mission field and never leave home. There are mission opportunities all around us. I hope that makes me more aware of people that are in need, people who are hurting, and how we can help meet those needs.”
Bertie County is among the poorest in North Carolina. The pastor said if it were not for Samaritan’s Purse, he knows the families would be homeless or in substandard housing.
“The tornado was very terrible and a lot of bad things happened,” he said, “and a lot of people lost their lives, but the good thing that came out of it was the way people changed in their relationships with Jesus Christ. Johnny Mizelle is a good example of that. He was one of the first ones to make a decision for Christ after the tornado came through, and the Johnny Mizelle of today is not the Johnny Mizelle of a year ago.
“On the outside he’s still the same, but on the inside he is forever changed.”
Now when you walk up to the Mizelle house, you see his old truck parked out front, two coon dog statues at the doorstep and a plaque near the front door that says his house will serve the Lord—and the Bertie County staff know that it will be true.
“I feel like I’m finally coming back home now,” Johnny said as he ate some dedication cake and laughed with his old and new friends. “It’s been a rough road, but I’m finally coming back home.”