Two weeks ago, Hurricane Harvey made landfall near Rockport, Texas, as a category 4 hurricane. In the hours that followed, we could only watch as Harvey dumped an unheard of amount of rain on the Lone Star State. When it was all said and done, the city of Houston would be underwater, looking more like a scene out of a J.J. Abrams movie than real-life news footage.
Even as rescue efforts continued and the city began the long, slow work of drying out and cleaning up, our eyes turned once again to the Atlantic where another ferocious beast began churning in the distance. News coverage spun on a dime from the receding waters of Houston to Irma’s 185 mile-per-hour winds and building-sized storm surges.
Before Irma made landfall this past weekend, much of the state of Florida had been evacuated. Those who stayed behind were told they’d be entirely on their own to weather the storm without hope of rescue.
These back-to-back natural disasters serve as sobering reminders that things are not right in our world. (Add to the mix the raging wildfires in Montana and the earthquake that struck Mexico early last week, and it becomes evident just how out-of-sorts this earth actually is.) We may be saddened when tragedy strikes, but we should not be surprised.
Every disaster requires a response. In some cases, as with Irma, the response can begin long before the real terror actually strikes. Thankfully, because of modern technology we are not caught unawares, and thus can make preparations ahead of time. Windows can be boarded, supplies can be purchased, people can be evacuated. These kinds of proactive responses undoubtedly saved hundreds, if not thousands, of lives.
But there is another response that will be needed in the days and months to come. It is the response of rebuilding. We are watching it unfold in Houston right now. We’ll do the same in Florida now that the storm has cleared. This rebuilding is a slow, deliberate labor. It is the work of picking up the wreckage, of piecing things back together. It is the work of weeping with those who have lost, of wrapping our arms around another, of entering into those places of broken homes, shattered windows, and deferred dreams.
In America, we are great at responding to tragedy. When the worst disasters happen, we come together. Supplies are purchased and shipped in droves. People take vacation time from work to drive 36 hours, boat in tow, to help recover and rescue people. J.J. Watt, a defensive end for the Houston Texans, blew past his goal of raising $200K for hurricane relief and has, as of this writing, surpassed the $31 million mark. Time and time again, when disaster strikes we as a nation are quick to rush in with relief and caring response.
The Storm of Charlottesville
Just weeks before Harvey flooded the Texas coastline, our country endured another devastating event. The damage was more emotional and spiritual than physical, making restoration that much more difficult. In Charlottesville, Virginia, the racist protests from a group of extremists brought to the surface a painful reminder that the human heart is capable of incredible evil. The wounds left by those hateful chants and disgusting slurs were not localized; the pain was felt in every state in the Union, across social, economic, and ethnic distinctions.
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, I saw sentiments across social media platforms praising the spirit of our nation for the way we respond to tragedy. “Charlottesville is not America,” they said. “Houston is America.” I can appreciate the thought: we are most certainly our best and most unified when rallying together around a common need. And yet as feel-good as that sentiment might be, it is grossly inaccurate. We are Charlottesville. In same way that we were Columbine and Waco and Civil War and Rodney King and Interment Camps, what happened in Charlottesville - the evil threats of white-supremacy, the peaceful, prayerful counter-protests, and everything in between - is part of who we are. We have incredible capacity for destruction as certainly as we do for kindness.
Most of the media coverage surrounding the Charlottesville incident highlighted the anger and violence that erupted. There were some mentions of peaceful intercession, but those came typically only as an aside. Mostly we all got really, really angry and really, really sad.
I find it intriguing that we personify hurricanes, almost as if we need someone to blame for our pain. Of course, this process is more deliberate and scientific than that: a list of names is used continuously on rotation, and every once in a while a hurricane so massive and devastating comes along that its name is retired. This allows a particular storm to forevermore be referenced without confusion, allowing us to pause and remember the maelstrom with reverence and clarity. (Ironically, an elderly couple sharing the names of these back-to-back storms became temporary social media sensations. Unlike the storms bearing their names, Harvey and Irma have left in their own wake a legacy of hope and kindness, not destruction, through years of opening their homes to foster children and giving their hearts to kids in Sunday School class.)
Humanity is just as capable of carnage as a violent storm, though usually we make use of means far more unnatural than wind and rain. Men like Hitler, Dahmer, Bin Laden, or Joseph Kony are known and remembered for the gruesome, hateful crimes they committed against other humans. Some, like tornadoes, were more localized in their dealings; others made the entire world feel the storm surges of their evil schemes.
The impact of Charlottesville felt like a hurricane. It sucked the breath and the hope right out of us, like Irma sucked the ocean waters from the shore. The chaos and violence were felt most intensely at ground zero in Virginia, but the winds of racism and fear blew to every corner of our country. Our dreams of progress were felled like giant trees, uprooted in the swirling gusts of disillusionment.
A New Response to Pain
I wonder, then, if our response to storms of human origin could be informed by the way we respond to more natural disasters. Though some people may joke about firing a couple rounds into the wind to release some tension, few people actually and sincerely shake their fists at the sky when a hurricane passes through. Cursing Irma may let off some steam temporarily, but none of us hope to actually accomplish anything restorative by doing so. Yet, when these names belong to people and not to storms, cursing becomes the norm. When evil has a face we feel justified in throwing whatever stones or barbs we can at the perpetrators. I’m not suggesting that we should be silent when evil deeds and motives are present, but there is certainly a point where pointing fingers becomes a useless endeavor and we must look to other means to make things right.
What if we began to view human tragedy as a storm to be weathered rather than a person to be condemned? What if love became the ongoing work of both prevention and restoration? What if we rushed into the places where hate was felt and offered simply to weep with a community? What if we sought out those in our midst who were affected the most - in this case, our black, Jewish, and Muslim brothers and sisters - and offered a touch, an ear, a prayer? What if we wondered out loud about what climate factors contribute to the hardening of one human heart against another in the same way we pursue an understanding of global warming? And what if we believed that the only way to ensure another Charlottesville storm does not make landfall was to set about the hard work of seeing human hearts transformed?
Restoring a city like Houston will take time, but it is the easy work. Restoring a heart that has been devastated by sin or pain is much more difficult. The former will benefit millions of people for a lifetime; the latter can benefit a single soul for all of eternity. Until Christ returns, our earth and all who live in it will endure under the weight of sin and death. There will be more hurricanes, more earthquakes, more wildfires. And there will be more Hitlers and Charlottesvilles. You and I, if we are willing to follow in the footsteps of Christ and prepare the way for his return, can live in such a way that prepares for and absorbs the damage for those around us.
When any human tragedy hits us, friends, lets be willing to rush in with a hug of relief and with the long work of restoring hope, regardless of what that looks like. This is a good path forward. I daresay it’s the only way. Find that one person today and rush in.