In the past month, four catastrophic hurricanes — Harvey, Irma, Jose, and Maria — have ripped through lives and property. Millions of people are now in shock as they take stock of the damage. Somehow, they must find a way to salvage their homes, to bury their dead, to find a way forward. What they may not know is the toll is far from physical; there is also spiritual damage to contend with.
As I read the reports of disaster recovery now underway in the Caribbean, Florida, and Texas, my mind flashes back to a Sunday evening in 2011. A small group of neighbors is gathered in my yard, assessing the damage to our places and rehashing our accounts of the F-5 tornado that just hit Joplin, MO.
I’m sure we sound excited, but in reality, we’re intensely relieved. The tornado, which some of us heard (an unforgettable sound) as it passed to our south, has moved on. Unable to place calls but able to receive them, we hear from concerned relatives and friends in other cities and states as they respond to televised reports.
The news is bad for so many. My neighbors and I realize that we must move on. We must begin the work of recovery.
At that moment, I don’t yet know the dimensions of devastation both physical and spiritual. My church is located on the inside edge of the impact zone; I am told that it barely escaped being declared a total loss. My office is now a temporary one, housed in a converted two-bedroom mobile home anchored on the west parking lot of our church.
The storm cut a swath through the middle of our city’s south side, six miles long and more than a half-mile wide, leveling everything in its way. The size of our parking lot allows adequate space for a disaster relief station, and so our office/trailer shares space with a couple of large trucks and several small trailers. Tent-like tarpaulins are stretched, raised, and anchored to stakes driven into the asphalt. Volunteers and victims, claims adjusters and disaster relief workers are moving busily to and fro, dining and resting, visiting and meeting. The only constancy is the steady hum of generators.
The woman finds me holed up in my office. A brown-eyed, curly-haired, four-year-old beauty is balanced on her hip. Her solemnity dramatically affects the mood of the office; our secretary speaks softly in her introductions and quietly closes the door behind her, as though this were a hospital room.
In one easy motion, she shifts her child from hip to lap. She owns an obvious elegance, battered and bruised though it is; when attending to the needs of her daughter – a caring touch, the straightening of hair, a smile – she is most at ease. The child, resting comfortably on her mother’s lap, gazes steadily at me through deep brown eyes. Having raised two daughters, I am an easy target. I offer her a smile, but she does not, cannot, receive it.
“So, how may I help you?” I ask, wanting not to sound clinical but eager to provide information about food, financial assistance, counseling, and temporary living arrangements.
“Do you have time to talk with me?” Her voice breaks with emotion. In an effort of self-control, she turns her attention to her daughter, then back to me.
“Yes, I have all the time we need.” I too sense within myself a desire, even a need, to move beyond the conventional talk of the storm.
She tells me her story: young, passionate love; youthful invincibility; no time for, or need of God; and then the stark reality of pregnancy.
The child’s father was determined in his love for her and for the child. They secure an apartment and find a church, one that “reminds me of my home church, when I was a child.” She describes a church that is legalistic in its identity and absolute in its theology. Success and health are presented as blessings of God. The first step for this couple to “get right with God” is a wedding. A date is set.
All the while, the little girl observes as we speak; first mom, then me. Back and forth she watches, old enough to hear, too young to understand. When her mom’s emotions give way to crying, the child rubs her mother’s arm or leans on her breast. That’s all she knows to do; that is her calling, and it matters.
At just such a moment, I learn that the storm has claimed both the apartment and the life of her fiancé. As she breaks into sobs, she struggles to speak the words, “My minister … told me that … if I get my life back together … if I pray … go to church … get married and have faith … God will bless us.”
And finally, she asks me: “Is this what you believe?”
Clearly, her agenda is other than I expected. She is seeking conversation rather than information. She wants ideas rather than money, sustenance for the soul rather than food for the body. She is tending to matters eternal, not material. She needs assistance with living in the meantime, between despair and some sense of hope. She needs a foothold in order to rise and stand again. With effort, she works to regain her composure; and with the child resting, then sleeping soundly on her lap, we finally do what she has come to do – we talk.
We talk of Job, who cared about God, as she does. Like Job, she is living her faith when disaster strikes. Like Job, rather than question God, she questions her own beliefs about God.
We talk of Job’s friends, who call on him to repent of sin which they believe is certainly the cause of his disaster. We talk of Job, who insists “I have not sinned.” He is not fearful of new understanding, nor of new expressions of old understanding.
We talk of the Psalmist’s belief, that God nourishes and tends to us “in the presence of our enemies,” in the midst of storm. That God leads us “through the valley” and through the storm rather than around these experiences.
We talk about “seeing through a glass, darkly.”
We talk of the Psalmist’s understanding that wherever we are, God is there. That wherever there is darkness, it is as light to God.
“But don’t take my word for it. Don’t adopt for yourself my beliefs,” I urge her. “I am here to help and encourage, not to insist.”
And then we begin our good-byes.
Recovery is so much more than rebuilding houses. As I read reports of chaplains and first responders tending to the victims of present day disasters, I think again about the woman I met in 2011. I do not remember her name, nor her daughter’s. She was simply there, and then gone. Does she ever look back on that afternoon spent in long conversation with me? I hope she does, and that she does so with a sense of assurance.
Sometimes people need someone to listen, not just provide specific, physical assistance. Sometimes, they just need a companion on the journey.
I hope she knows I cared. I still do.