When the flood waters rise, do you know what fire ants do? They clamp and cling onto each other to make a raft. One ant alone will drown. But when they join together the whole colony can float. They make a floating island together with their bodies. And then they shuffle who’s on the bottom, so no one ant is underwater too long. So this is how they float out the flood and eventually land again on dry ground somewhere else and then get to work building their colony again.
“Depth isn’t everything: the spruce has no taproot, but to hold on spreads its underpinnings thin – a gathering in one continuous, meshing intimacy,the interlace of unrelated fibers joining hands like last survivors who, though not even neighbors hitherto, know in their predicament security at best is shallow.” – Amy Clampitt
When catastrophe hits we quickly realize that security is shallow. We are suddenly exposed as vulnerable creatures. All of our worldly possessions are suddenly shown to be fragile. But we also can realize that depth isn’t everything, our security can be through the spread of our underpinnings, our interconnected roots.
Folks who study what people do during and after disasters find, time and time again, that people connect very quickly to help each other out. And they connect in a way that’s indiscriminate for the most part – the normal rules dissolve of whom you’re supposed to encounter and help and who your supposed to receive help from. People help each other no matter what they look like and talk like. This is for the most part, but in a way that’s remarkable.
The other remarkable thing is that the official response or lack of response is important, but it’s not the most important thing – the networks that are already there organically in communities spring into actions, leaders emerge, and people improvise to find out who needs help and how to get that help to them. These networks are then most important in the long term, through the long process of restoring life when everything got washed away.
But this happens more successfully in communities that are already close knit. So, for instance, after the ’94 earthquake in L.A., folks who work and study disaster trauma found that the communities who were the least traumatized were refugee immigrant communities who had developed strong ways of surviving together. The folks most traumatized by the earthquake were actually the most privileged, their lifestyle was very individualistic and isolated.
So let’s hear again the Apostle Paul speaking to his community of Jesus followers living in Rome: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep… If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Paul is teaching about about how the spirit knits us together to be able to withstand the storms of this world.
Now, what happens on the ground after disaster also involves the worst of human nature. Sin definitely gets into these situations. People can use this as an opportunity to take advantage of each other. But not nearly in the ways we’re led to believe… not some kind of zombie apocalypse, as much as our society seems to like those fantasies.
I’ll never forget the newspaper cover after Hurricane Katrina “Anarchy! Looting!” with this photo of people – Black people! – loading up liquor in the back of a pick-up truck. Meanwhile I was checking in with my friend who was actually there in the 9th Ward, and all the stories he had to share with me were about people helping each other. The situation was terrible, but in the midst of that the human nature that came out was folks helping each other out. It was gang members were actually some of the most effective helpers – they were organized and knew how to make things happen and, yes, they cared about getting the elders of their community to safety and making sure they had their heart medicine.
I was in New York City, in seminary, when Hurricane Sandy hit. I don’t wish that on anybody. I ended up being safe where I lived. I was in the higher northern part of the island of Manhattan. It was very stressful – and I didn’t lose anything, besides a couple weeks wages because I couldn’t get to work (which was stressful, but in the scheme of things not much at all). So many folks had so much from their lives just torn away.
There was a period of time where it was like a collective adrenaline dump that just propelled countless people into being awesome human beings for one another. During the storm, it was just incredible … like, first responders and nurses and doctors evacuating patients these major hospitals. They did it without any injury. I mean, nurses on gurneys with their patients breathing for them as the rain pelts down and the floods rush in.
Then when the storm settled, and there was this stunned feeling, immediately the folks who lit up and quickly mobilized to get out to the worst hit places and open channels of aid – faster than anyone else … was Occupy Wall Street. Now this is a year after they got routed out of Zuccatti park. Here you have a network of very engaged folks who had gotten good at mobilizing resources to provide basic food and shelter and health care to lots of people. And they didn’t need anyone telling them what to do. They were very leaderful. (The Dept. of Homeland Security put out a study called the “Resilience of social networks” that studied what official disaster response can learn from the successes of Occupy).
They were connected to all kinds of community groups, so quickly you had, for instance, a Lutheran church in Brooklyn with this troublemaking ex-priest becoming the hub for aid to the area. The sanctuary was like this warehouse beehive.
So there you have it. But there were other community groups, lots – and I don’t want to discount the importance of official operations, who definitely have a critical role especially if you’re going to get to the scale you need to help, what is it?, 30000 people find safe shelter. (But, that said, if you want to give money to help Texas, please don’t give to the Red Cross).
I ended up spending the most time with a community group in Chinatown, who were so amazing. You just showed up with with some of the things they needed and then you’ll get put to use.
One time I ended up in a car with just a random group of people there to help. There was someone who worked for a Hip-Hop promoter, and a teenager whose family ran a Chinese grocery store, and a fancy lawyer, and a college student, and myself. Between us, it turned we spoke four languages, which, it turned out, was very useful. Our job was to go up into a public housing complex that had been without power for a week, and to make sure that the people there were getting what they needed. The guys hanging out outside the buildings always would direct us on who to check on first, you know, Mrs. So-and-so on the 10th floor, who’s in her 90s and her family’s in New Jersey. The biggest need was people running low on their medicine who couldn’t get down the stairs with the elevators not working. One of these days the National Guard had set up nearby. We were talking with them sharing about this operation – and we’re talking 100s of volunteers over the course of a week and a half canvassing the area in a systematic way to get food and water and medicine to folks trapped – and the National Guard commander said, “You can’t do that! It’s dangerous! These people will jump you in the stairwell.” You can’t do that. It’s dangerous. These people will jump you in the stairwell.
There you have it.
What we knew, that he didn’t know, was the power of this “meshing intimacy,” the power of the little ants clinging together to make a raft in the flood and rearranging themselves to make sure no one gets sacrificed.
And I want to be sure, my friends, that you and we together also are very persuaded in that power. It’s a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth… in the midst of hell on earth.
Let’s look out for where that meshing intimacy shows itself in Houston and south Texas, God bless them, so we can do our little part to help … in the face of just monstrous destruction.
The death toll, you know, is up to 1200. 1200 souls lost to floods this week … in Bangladesh and India. A 1/3 of the country of Bangladesh is under water. How far does our meshing intimacy extend? Who is our neighbor
May this be for us above all a call to continue to see and to strengthen the meshing intimacy here among us here in this church community and with everyone who interweaves with us. Let’s celebrate and strengthen our ability to respond to each other’s needs … for it’s own sake, but also because these networks of mutuality are what will help us be resilient in times of trial. So, “Let our love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; Love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” -Romans 12:9-21
(Delivered September 3, 2017, at First Congregational Church of Walla Walla, by Rev. Nathaniel Mahlberg)