(Photo I took in Joplin, MO, June 9, 2011)
I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.
I am sure I will write more about this, but I wanted to jot some things down while it is still fresh in my mind for all of my friends. I spent the morning in one of the local distribution centers, helping in the clothing room, and the afternoon bringing water to people "in the field"--"the field" is the name given to the mile wide, six mile long debris field representing the path of the tornado that ripped through Joplin Sunday, May 22.
My morning tasks consisted of working in the clothing room. This center, the one at McAuley Catholic High School, is in the process of relocating and consolidating with another center, so we were simultaneously trying to both pack up the clothing in boxes and label the boxes, as well as help those applying for assistance obtain clothing.
People needing clothing and food were outside a full hour before the center was to open. We were sent out to give them coffee and write down names so the intake counselors could at least have some names to start with. Many times, I would tell folks, "Now, we don't open until ten," and the answer was the same--"That's okay, I don't have anything else to do," or "I don't have anywhere else to go." Many of the volunteers were displaced themselves--and their frequent reply was, "I'd rather be here helping than sitting around, looking at my torn-up house and feeling sorry for myself."
For three weeks, many of these folks have been living night to night at the homes of friends and family, in shelters, and in the blown-out remnants of their homes at the periphery of the field. Many escaped with only the clothes on their backs. Some of the ones living at their houses have no electricity and the gas is off. I saw several of the young mothers bringing in toddlers with no shoes. An elderly man sat in the clothing room and made brightly-colored balloon animals for the children--some were very elaborate, such as penguins and cartoon characters, like Spiderman. He told me, "I am too old to help with the hard work you younger folks are doing. But I can make these and put smiles on the faces of the kids for a day."
Muchf of my morning was spent taping boxes together, because I was one of the few volunteers with a pocketknife. Scissors to cut the tape were in very short supply. We were using the boxes both to take the clothing off the racks to move, and for the clients to collect the clothing they needed. I found myself alternating between my little monastic world of the box assembly, and assisting the clients. I had to laugh at how several people, both volunteers AND clients, would come up to me and have a question about something. When I told them I was just a volunteer on my first day here, they'd reply, "Oh, I thought you were in charge." I'd just laugh and offer to assist them or find the person needed.
Almost all of us had name tags, but the atmosphere was like a big twelve step meeting, all of us using first names only, and discussing things like "powerlessness.". Some of the volunteers felt very overwhelmed at how little a dent they seemed to be making in such a mess. Many of the volunteers that were local were off work--some of them didn't even HAVE a workplace at the moment, and were awaiting instructions as to when they would be returning to work, or where it would be. Some knew that they no longer had a job--several small businesses were destroyed and it would be unlikely if they reopened.
I was surprised at how reticent many of the clients were to simply take all of what they needed or even admit they needed it. I vividly remember a very haggard-looking young woman with a baby in arms and a little boy who looked to be three or so. I was helping find the little boy a pair of shoes. I offered her a second pair. "Can he HAVE two?". I assured her, "Certainly. It's going to rain, here, he will need these little boots, too.". I was assisting a woman in the grocery room and noticed she kept shaking her head when I offered her canned goods. She had three small children in tow. I asked her if she could cook or had a microwave where she was living. She did. I said, "Ma'am, these babies need some good vegetables, not just cereal and granola bars.". Then in a split second I had a flash thought. "Ma'am, do you need a can opener?" It was then that tears came down her eyes and she started sniffling.
I smiled and said, "Well we can certainly fix THAT, too!" So I got her a key-drive can opener and some canned goods. As I gave her the sack, I put both of my hands around hers, and said, "Please--ask for what you need. Don't ever be ashamed to ask. I am grateful you are alive today to be here and touch MY life the way you have today. God bless you.". It was then I received the first of many hugs I would be exchanging throughout the day,
At lunch, I sat with many of the more local volunteers. It's obvious a weariness and a frustration is setting in. Some of it is a natural tension, I believe, between the "outsiders" who come in and manage disaster relief, who will be gone at some point, mixed with a weariness of how this mess is their world now, a world not of their making, and it will be a part of their day-to-day for a long time. Several have had multiple flat tires already. Many have work to do on their own houses. The smallest things of life have been interrupted, the little things like getting kids to the babysitters or finding certain grocery items. Almost everyone at the table knows someone who died.
An outside volunteer is like a breath of fresh air to them. When I told them I was from Kirksville, MO, they would smile that someone would come "all this way" with no family here. I said, "But you have volunteers from all over the country--they have come from much further."
"Yeah, but say "California," or something like that, you might as well say you're from Venus. But we know where Kirksville is, and my God, you can't get there from here! That's as far away as you can get and still be in Missouri!"
Our lunch was good solid food--spaghetti and meat sauce, bread, and cookies--dished up by the cooks from the school. Since school was out, they were happy to be using up the leftover staples in the kitchen.
The afternoon tends to be much slower in terms of clients visiting the center, so the staff asked if any volunteers had pickup trucks to haul water and granola bars out to volunteers working in "the field" and to families staying with or working with what was left of their homes in the periphery of the field. Everyone sort of magically assigned themselves with pickup truck drivers--I ended up with four young folks from St. Louis, one of whom was a Truman State grad from a few years back. Again, we pretty much only knew each other by first name, but we immediately bonded.
So off we went with a truckload of ice, cases of water, and tubs of granola bars and water bottles in tubs of ice, along with, of all things, several of the balloon animals the elderly man at the distribution center had made.
As we neared the field (I still can't get over how for me, "the field" conjures up images of pleasant green pastures, and this was anything BUT that,) we first entered that buffer zone of mostly intact, but damaged houses, but with almost all the tall trees sheared off at the 15-20 foot level. It was as if Mother Nature had gone through with a giant hedge trimmer. In the buffer zone, house after house had an "x" spray painted on the side, signifying it had been cleared of occupants. Many people had spray painted their addresses on the side, as most of the street signs were gone and neighborhoods had become unrecognizable, even to long-standing locals. The GPS was often the only way to tell what street we were on.
Other messages had been spray painted by owners to let rescue crews know the status of the occupants: "All safe," "pets ok," "gas off, lights, phone and sewer ok," and "owner has cell phone," just to name a few. Of most interest was the variety of "statements" people had painted on the houses, ranging from "you loot, we shoot," to "Wow, that was some party!" to "God is still here.". (My personal favorite was, "For Sale, Split Level Home--Split in 1/2 and 1/2 Leveled!")
Then starkly, almost like crossing a street into another neighborhood, we were in the field--a mile wide, and six miles long. What was most striking to me were the trees--all devoid of any foliage, tops broken off, and nothing but shredded piles of debris. I have seen plenty of tornado damage in my life, but never such a seemingly never-ending swath of it. St. John's Mercy Hospital loomed over it, like a monument, a shrine to the devastating powerlessness all human endeavor is to the forces of nature. I thought about how the insurance companies call this an "act of God"--but no God would ever order this. No human being has evil enough inside him or her to warrant this level of destruction by any angry so-called God.
Rich neighborhoods and poor neighborhoods alike had been flattened, the only difference being, in the more wealthy neighborhoods, paid contractors and debris removal teams were already at work, and in the more meager neighborhoods, people huddled on their porches and what was left in their yards, listening to music, playing cards, and hoping a volunteer crew would take pity on them. Yet I was reminded in this the sameness that resides in our common lives together in this world, and the sameness that comes in death.
The part where pictures don't do the scene justice is that things are starting to smell there. Driving with the windows down, so we could holler to attract people's attention, we'd encounter one smell after another--the smell of broken sewer vents, the beginnings of mold among furniture that had been out in the subsequent rains, and the stench of rotting refrigerator contents. The odor of sweaty people seemed like an out of place sign of life in this land of death.
The people I met this afternoon will be forever etched on my mind, and how the mere act of bringing water, snacks, and human presence into this wasteland, this place seemingly devoid of humanity, literally changed demeanors. We met work crews of every type and every flavor, from all over the country--power, light, and gas workers, family crews, and church groups full of teenagers with the requisite weary-looking two or three adults. I still see the gratitude in their faces.
I met one of the power and light workers up close and personal when it became obvious he was overheated. ("No, seriously--I know I don't look like it at the moment, but I really AM a doctor, and I am telling you you need to lie down under this tree with this bag of ice on the back of your neck, and, no, taking a smoke break ain't gonna fix this...I'd say you're done for the day, and if you don't feel a little better in a few minutes, you're going to the ER.") In the poorer neighborhoods, we met many ethnicities, but particularly Latinos, many whom did not speak English all that well. ("Hola! Agua! Es muy frio! Es libre!" was about all I could remember to blurt out off the top of my head on such short notice, but the smiles were universally understood.)
What I still find amazing is not just the civility, but the gratitude we all seemed to share with one another. It seemed the most common thing uttered not just by those in and near the field, but by us, was "God bless you." People not only just said it to us, but I found myself saying it to them. "Thank you," was another common exchange, not just from those in the field to us, but us to them. "Thank you for coming all this way to help." "Thank you for just being alive for me to meet you on this day,".
My arms are sore from exercising "The ministry of the hug." I think I now hold my personal record for the most sweaty, grimy, somewhat smelly people I have ever hugged on a given day. I was flabbergasted at the number of people who hugged me. I was shocked at the number of people in the buffer zone who unabashedly looked right at me and said, "Pray for me." One moment we would be engaged in small talk, and suddenly, their eyes would lock onto me like a heat-seeking missile, and out would come, "Pray for me." I would ask their name, assure them that I would, and remind them that their prayers are just as powerful as mine. Honestly, I don't remember a tenth of their names now. But I have faith that their telling me their name is good enough. God knows who they are.
What I want to say in closing is that there is still much work to be done here, and these people who have been affected will need not just money, not just stuff, but the ministry of presence, for a long time. If you can find the time to volunteer, please do. As time passes, and the memory of the disaster itself fades, the need will still remain.