Emerging from Disaster
by Jeff Ritchie
My wife and I live in Jacksonville, Florida. Along with thousands of other Floridians, we evacuated as hurricane Irma bore down on Florida a few weeks ago. Returning after the hurricane, we found that our home was spared; electricity was back on, and the neighbors who had not evacuated had already cleaned the debris from all the yards of the houses on our street. We were the fortunate ones. Others in Jacksonville and other parts of Florida were not so fortunate. Neither were far too many people in Texas and in several Caribbean countries who will be spending years getting their lives back in order.
Last week on The Outreach Foundation’s Facebook page we posted this prayer request regarding hurricanes Harvey and Irma, “Please join us in praying that relief efforts will restore lives and that we will ultimately see the good from these events.” I started thinking about what “the good from these events” might look like. And the image of a magnifying glass came to me.
In disasters we experience great loss – the destruction of property, the loss of irreplaceable parts of our past, and we mourn even as we wonder about the future. At the same time, however, we find surprising, unexpected goodness, love and support that the disaster, or rather, the response to the disaster, magnifies.
Consider the televised reports from Houston during hurricane Harvey. Ordinary citizens used their own boats or walked through waist-deep waters to seek out people trapped inside their homes or waiting uncertainly on their roofs. As the flood waters receded, Houston-area churches formed teams who helped total strangers muck out their homes and pile unusable belongings on curbsides. Personally, my wife and I know someone who spent two weeks in Houston as a volunteer with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance simply being with people, hearing their stories, and offering a caring presence.
Each of these actions reflects the compassion of God in whose image we were created. Because human beings are created in the image of God, all of us have the potential to make visible the tender heart of God for those caught up in a disaster. To be human is to have the capacity for compassion, and when we act out of compassion during a disaster, we magnify this trait of our Lord whatever our professed faith. It’s simply how we were created.
The recent hurricanes also magnified our common humanity rather than our visible differences. Prior to Harvey and Irma, we in the United States had just spent several weeks in anguish over the attitudes and behaviors that divide us as a nation. The hurricanes had the opposite effect. They brought people together – working side by side to clean up debris, rallying in support of disaster relief organizations, and gathering in prayer for the victims of the hurricanes. People, irrespective of race, color, creed, or culture, needed help. Likewise, people, irrespective of race, color, creed, or culture, responded. By such deeds people affirmed what the Bible says: we are all created in the image of God. As the children’s song says, “Red, brown, yellow, black or white, we are precious in God’s sight . . .”
A third way that the recent disasters have manifested our being created in the image of God was one that I had not thought of until recently. Miroslav Volf, in a volume entitled Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace, asserts that God fundamentally is a giver. He goes on to say that as those created in God’s image, we too can reflect this aspect of God. Reading this book during the current hurricane season, I was struck how disasters give us the opportunity to give more generously than in non-crisis times.
The ministry that I have served for twenty years, The Outreach Foundation, received greater donations in the year of the earthquake in Haiti (2010) than it did in the year following. More recently, the ongoing civil wars in South Sudan, Syria, and Iraq, have generated an overwhelming response from generous churches and individuals wanting to help the peoples of these lands.
We have seen the giving heart of God magnified to an even higher degree in the global church partners in these disaster areas. Pastors in Iraq who opened their doors to internal refugees fleeing Isis, Lebanese women in a dispensary in Beirut serving Syrian refugees, parents and volunteer teachers from South Sudan who have opened preschools in refugee camps in Ethiopia – these sisters and brothers are the ways God magnifies his generosity. They have nowhere near the resources we have in the United States, but they give themselves to God and to the service of others.
God has created us equally in his image to reflect his compassion and generosity to the world. The disasters of this world are terrible; they also give us the opportunity to magnify the heart of God who is with us and for us. May we thus continue to be God’s heart, hands, and feet, knowing that in the Lord our labor is not in vain.