From my own experience of being uncharacteristically glued to CNN and Larry King and more broadcast news than I have consumed in many years, and the acres of newsprint I have poured over, and the hours of PBS and Air America I have listened to, I have been alternately mesmerized, horrified, tearful, irate, and stupefied.
Part of my life as a UU minister has always been community ministry. Since 1996, I have been associated with a local ecumenical and now interfaith cooperative ministry for low income and homeless women, children, and families. In recent days, we have been struggling with how to respond to the newly arriving evacuees from the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts in light of the fact that we are already stretched to serve those already in our care, or on waiting lists for our shelters, transitional housing, and financial assistance. Even, some lean weeks in the summer, on waiting lists for food.
This past week has been a time of taking in the disaster, and this coming week will be a time of responding to the disaster. Professionally, it seems nearly overwhelming already, with decisions needing to be made about how we balance, if we can balance, attending to the thousands of indigent, homeless, dislocated, and disenfranchised people who are either native to Georgia or have come — as many already have — in the aftermath of previous family, community, and natural calamity, and the hundreds, more likely thousands, who will be coming in buses and on trains, fleeing this new and most devastating one.
Personally, and as a member of the Georgia and Mid-South family of Unitarian Universalists, I am now, and will be even more so, confronted with weighing and balancing my own, our own, previous and planned involvements and commitments, not just to ourselves but to other social conditions and causes — and now this latest huge and pressing catastrophe.
Last night I drove to our Gwinnett County congregation for a meeting of around 50 people from several UU communities who are trying to find a way to be of more than monetary help (though we have been told that, for the most part, cash donations will be the most helpful). The leadership of this congregation had first offered to house displaced Unitarian Universalists from the storm area. Not unexpectedly, there were no takers, as by this time, as one person said, the overwhelmingly middle-classed, employed, and highly networked members of the affected congregations had already found assistance, if needed.
So the offer of housing our own changed to an offer to house a busload of 24 single mothers and their children, evacuees from a women’s shelter who had been staying in Baton Rouge. A group of lawyers in Atlanta had chartered some buses, drove to Louisiana and pulled up to one of the places looking for transportation out. Apparently, this group of women were willing to come to Georgia, because, unlike our UU brothers and sisters, they have few, if any, connections or resources, and are willing to take the chance that relocating will give them the temporary assistance and perhaps the future that they need for themselves and their families.
At around 6 a.m. this morning, dozens of UUs will have met the bus in a church parking lot in the middle of the Atlanta suburbs, and started a journey of at least a month, probably longer, of hospitality, of assistance, of shared pain and hardship. This will include not only providing room and board, but locating or providing clothing, medical care, counseling, temporary or permanent jobs and housing, school enrollment, school supplies, diapers, daycare, etc., etc.
I went, quite frankly, to be a voice of some prophetic admonishment, even doom, based on my years working with displaced families, voicing concerns about covenants of understanding, limits of what people can commit to, and the real probabilities of frustration and disappointment as our fabric of caring inevitably frays. My occasionally blunt words of caution and injections of legal and economic warnings were not universally met with welcome and approval. We came for inspiration, one parishioner spoke up, not do business.
Thankfully (for me), I was not the only one who had concerns in the midst of the obvious and admirable enthusiasm and generosity. At one point toward the end of this long and late meeting, a woman admitted being apprehensive that if having guests for more than three days was challenging, what would it be like after 30, or perhaps longer?
When the apparent human need to get back to something we call normal life overtakes us, needs for privacy, needs for respite, needs that we may label as selfish but which do not make us ungenerous or uncaring people.
I read in the Faith and Values section of yesterday’s metro paper about what we know about human response to adversity and the nature of our generosity. There was a fairly extensive interview with Robin Lovin, a professor of ethics at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. He observed that there is much evidence, from the 9-11 tragedy, to the Tsunamis, to our recent swarm of major hurricanes, that people do bare their hearts in the aftermath of these events, because partly and initially it is something we can all identify with. If it could happen to other people, it could happen to us.
Even though we tend to be suspicious of strangers and don’t want to involve ourselves, Lovin said, even though in this anonymous and for some very affluent 21st century we expect people to take care of themselves — for a time we will respond with genuine benevolence.
But then, Lovin reminded us, Martin Luther King always said that America is an eight-day country. When something happens, he said, people stay excited and concerned for about eight days, then it falls away. Beyond the initial response and our customary attention span, reconstruction will take what he calls social imagination and moral commitment beyond anything in recent American experience. Will we have the attention span and staying power to do what must be done to make things right?
While this ethicist was addressing and looking ahead at the future of our concern and commitment around the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I take Rev. Dr. King’s words about the American eight-day attention span to heart when it comes to other pressing issues that may be ignored or abandoned as we move from one to the next.
A week ago, national attention was on the mother of a dead soldier in Iraq whose vigil in an ant infested Texas ditch looked like it might spur a sustained effort to set a timeline for the end of our military involvement there and more concern for the troops serving. Including plans for a large march in Washington D.C. at the end of this month. And earlier this summer, really only a little more than a month ago, there was a swell of attention and a sizable march and demonstration commemorating the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Voting Rights Act, remembering the horrors of life for African Americans, especially in the South, for the years preceding it; and asking to make sure that these rights continue.
Will these efforts and mobilizations continue with any hope of our attention and participation as this new call for our energy and involvement has emerged?
So, as I drove back home last night from that meeting of UUs, as always, a small but disproportionately impact group, I wondered how I could possibly still speak today about my experiences and heart’s work this summer, how could I possibly make what seemed to be a huge and perhaps inappropriate leap from the events of this past week to the historical events of four decades ago.
And then a young woman called into a progressive radio talk show and talked about how the pictures of black people wading in flood waters; old men dying in lawn chairs; babies wailing on sidewalks; had reminded her family of the times when they experienced and saw pictures of dogs snarling and hoses turned on another generation of African Americans whose living conditions and civil rights were also desperate and violated.
The link is there — if we are open to seeing it — between past injustices and second class status and the present situations in Mississippi, Alabama, and perhaps especially Louisiana.
Even now, perhaps especially now, as so many of the hurricane and flood victims link the tragedy that befell them with a continued sense of disempowerment and disenfranchisement, we must not abandon our other work of protecting their civil rights, working for economic justice, and opposing a war that is draining our energies, resources, and hope.
This reflection was written early Sunday morning. The expected bus did not reach the UU congregation’s parking lot, rather stopped at a shelter staffed by experienced disaster relief workers and the possibility of more comprehensive one-stop services for the women and their children. Metro UUs will be continuing to find ways to plug into the relief efforts as Atlanta will become the temporary or permanent home for thousands of evacuees.