On a recent evening drive down a lonely stretch of Highway 97 in north central Washington I hit a deer. She appeared out of nowhere and I ushered her into oblivion. The car was pretty damaged. When I returned along that stretch of road a day and a half later, the deer was still there and was being feasted on by magpies. Magpies are basically black and white crows. They lack the kind of beak it takes to tear into flesh, so they have to wait until animals are opened for them, as in road kill. Then they show up and have a feast on the carcass that bore the misfortune of the accident.
Tragic events around the world seem to have a predictable trajectory. First there is the sketchy news that something has happened or is happening. Like magpies to road kill, reporters, curious onlookers, well-meaning would-be helpers, and opportunistic politicians race to town. There is broad media exposure as every detail regarding the tragedy is discussed ad infinitum on the airwaves. Experts are interviewed. Elites show up and claim some airtime proposing their outrage/compassion/dismay and proposed shortsighted solutions. At some point a new tragedy attracts the attention of the world and the circus packs up and leaves town. What are left are the people who really live in their community trying to put the pieces back together.
How alike are those who sweep in to the magpies? Or to the Edomites who watched their cousins swept away by Babylon without lifting a finger – only to sweep in afterwards to see what they could find to loot?
Do not enter the gate of my people in the day of their calamity; do not gloat over his disaster in the day of his calamity; do not loot his wealth in the day of his calamity.(Obadiah 1:13)
If the community is lucky the momentary notoriety will also mean generous giving that will help to rebuild or restore what was broken. More often than not, the resources do not materialize and the burden shifts back to the community. I don’t expect the trajectory to be any different from tragedy to tragedy. It is the nature of what makes news. But I do want to know what can be done by people who are willing to help after the dust settles. As a pastor who has served people following natural disasters around the world, I want to know how to enter such places as a partner in the rebuilding and restoral of a community — not a carpetbagger with my own agenda who objectifies the community and their pain.
In his recent post “Lessons from Baltimore and the Bible: Work with the People, Not for the People”, Dr. Paul Metzger asks,
“How often do we find the tragic irony that insider and outsider experts and cultural elites alike fail to listen to the locals in places under duress?”
In Baltimore, where local pastors and community leaders had been working hard to bring peace and justice to their communities, the elites and opportunists brought angst and turmoil that was heaped onto an already hurting city. They threw gasoline on the fire! Had they engaged those who were involved in grassroots efforts before the fires broke out and who were now trying to pick up the pieces, I wonder how different their responses might have been?
The reason I was in north central Washington was to build shelters for people who had lost homes in the tragic wildfires that swept through this region. During the fires, the predictable media cycle ran its course alongside the fires. Waves of sympathy were directed towards the people who lost everything. But when the ash settled they were on their own. It was a local pastor, George Conkle, who mobilized the community. He began the Recovery Shed Program in order to raise funds to build shelters. Then he worked through a network of churches and community people to find teams willing to build alongside those who lost their homes.
We arrived ready to work on what was already determined to be the best course of action. We were able to be a part of a grassroots effort — and were consequently a blessing and not a burden. We didn’t come to take — we came to give. And for those who lost everything and were without resources to get back on their feet, a community rose in response.
Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ (Matthew 25:34-36)