It is impossible to write about the events of this past week without beginning with thoughts and prayers for the millions—millions—of people who were impacted by the ravages of Hurricane Harvey and its aftermath. The heartbreaking stories emerging from flooded neighborhoods are poignant and powerful and tug hard at the heart. As the headlines fade, those of us outside the immediately affected area must respond by volunteering time and treasure to render assistance.
But what we also witnessed this week was precisely what gives me hope for the future of our country and its people, giving me renewed confidence that we will survive whatever political turbulence emerges from Washington or from friend and foe alike in capitals around the world. In Texas, Americans of every stripe pitched in to help neighbors, often total strangers. Thousands of rescues happened because of the indomitable spirit of our people who responded immediately. The King James Version of the Bible—not a translation I often quote—uses a word, “straightway,” to translate the Greek word, euthus. Straightway implies an instinctive urge to act or, as one commentator puts it, “without unnecessary zigzags.” What a great image for these circumstances.
Individuals responded straightway to total strangers. Often, rescuers moved on to others, literally saving lives, without even being introduced. There was so much to be done. These efforts were not coordinated from above, but rather sprang up as grassroots, almost from the waters themselves. They were organized by the spirit that defines America at our best—the principle of sacrifice, the willingness to risk, the desire to help because someone is in need. This spirit transcended every imaginable barrier that some who are in power seek to throw up between us—race, class, ethnicity, political persuasion, age, gender, neighborhood. It was simply people helping people.
Why must it take a tragedy of “epic proportions” to remind us of our interrelatedness? Back in seminary, I was first introduced to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King from his commencement address at Oberlin College in 1965. Dr. King’s words bear repeating in this moment: “All I’m saying is simply this: that all [hu]mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be—this is the interrelated structure of reality…and by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.”
Dr. King’s quote implies an essential question: What great revolution lies ahead? I am not sure. My good friend Sam Simon always asks, “what are we right before?” In other words, what does the present tell us about the immediate future? In these turbulent and unpredictable times, can we discern what lies just beyond the horizon? Clearly, if we are to predict the future, we must be more than superficially attentive to the here and now. The lesson I take away from this week’s news from Texas: no matter the disaster—natural or human—with God’s help, the courageous, eternally generous, responsive and imaginative spirit of the American people will prevail. The extraordinary selflessness of first responders, both professionals and volunteers, who called themselves the Cajun Navy, offered a much needed balance to recent anxiety producing headlines and restores hope that we will be okay.