On Sunday, April 27th, 2014, a deadly tornado struck the state of Arkansas and left an 80-mile path of destruction in its wake. My current professional position took me from Tacoma, WA to Little Rock, AR where I began my position as a field caseworker for a national disaster relief organization. Coming from the Seattle area, I had never experienced the devastation that a tornado can bring. The aftermath is indescribable. Over the past few weeks, I have seen hundreds of homes reduced to large piles of rubble. There is a strange mix of awe and sorrow that fills your stomach when you first see the damage. It is a surreal experience. I remember driving through the town of Vilonia on my first outreach assignment and feeling that the only way my mind could rationalize what I was seeing was by convincing myself that maybe the town had always looked this way. I felt sick to my stomach. My mouth was dry and I was fighting back tears. We drove down along a street of what used to be houses. Pulling up to the curb, I stepped out of the car and the first thing I saw was a tattered teddy bear.
The tornados that struck Arkansas and Mississippi did not garner much media attention on the western side of the county. Those who were aware of the disaster told me that "people know it's going to happen" and stated "so I don't know why they don't just move." Along my journey I met families who have rebuilt their homes two, three, or four times. Tornadoes and flooding and lightning storms have reduced houses to rubble and yet, they continue to make the choice to rebuild. I admit that I asked myself the same questions. Why do these people rebuild when they know they could lose it all again next year?
My question was answered on Thursday, May 8th.
I was asked to go out on a special assignment in the town of Conway, AR that Thursday morning. The case was delicate. Local officials and congregation members had called our office and voiced their concerns about a particular family. Since the tornado, Little Rock and the outlying areas have been under the threat of severe thunderstorms that bring the further threat of flooding and lightning damage. This particular family had lost absolutely everything in the tornado. The community was concerned that they had no place to go and would have to sleep outside in the storm.
That morning I met up with a local pastor who was volunteering for the Southern Baptists. The Southern Baptists have not ceased to impress me in the rare times that I have been given the opportunity to work with them. Along with mass feeding, the Southern Baptists offer spiritual support in times of disaster. I must admit here that I am not a very religious person. I was never raised on religion and have very seldom been in church. I am not opposed to the idea of faith, but it has never really been present in my life. At first, the pastor's presence made me feel a bit uneasy. He was a gentle and funny man, but I didn't know if I could really get behind all the talk of faith and "God's plan."
As we were speaking to the family, we learned the story of their suffering. Before me I saw an unimaginable strength. I saw two people who loved each other so deeply, that they would sacrifice comfort, personal safety, and happiness to sake of each other. I also saw an unimaginable torment. I saw the stress and the self-blame and the negative retrospective thinking that is so common in disaster situations. I stood hugging a woman whom I had never met while she cried on my shoulder. She told me this was the first time she had cried since her life was blown away.
The pastor then stepped in, placed his hand on hers and asked her, very gently, "May I pray for you?"
She wiped her eyes and whispered, as if she was only speaking to herself, "Yes. Thank you."
He held out his hands and encouraged me to join. Her husband, who had been sorting rubble in the background, firmly took my left hand, while I timidly placed my right hand into the open palm of the Southern Baptist pastor. We bowed our heads, closed our eyes, and for a few seconds, stood in silence, absorbing the sound of the wind and the smoky chemical smell of burning insulation, car parts, and family pictures.
"Our heavenly Father. We ask you today to be here with us. I ask you to wrap your arms around this family and hold them to you. Keep them safe. Father, we ask you not for the replacement of material goods, but for the replacement of security that was lost. We ask you to guide this family into emotional and spiritual recovery. We ask you to stay with them in their time of need. Just as Jesus died on the Cross for our sins, this family has sacrificed themselves for your love. Father, we ask that you give them love and light in their time of need."
I was shaking. The hand to the left of me was gripping so hard, not wanting to let go. Not wanting to be blown away.
A tingling sensation rose through my body and I felt safe and warm and loved. I felt as if someone had wrapped a large blanket around my body and was lulling me to sleep. The sobs of the woman who I had held just minutes earlier had changed from frantic to joyful. We stood in silence for a few minutes more. My shoulders were light. The weight of the world had disappeared.
As someone who has never really known religion, I do believe that in this moment, I had experienced the purest powers of faith. Faith, in reference to my own experience, is something that is purely altruistic. Faith can be, in essence, the purest form of compassion. Regardless of every societal issue that has been attached to faith over the course of millenia, it seems to me that compassion is really what we aim for. Compassion for each other in an immaterial sense. Compassion for what we are at the very core of our being. Compassion from one soul, overfilling, overjoyed, feeding the cavernous hunger of another.
Compassion is all together simple and powerful. Compassion brings light in times of darkness. Compassion allows the soul to open itself and begin to heal from the hurt we sometimes experience in this world. Compassion is electric. It pulses through the veins, it warms the body, it ignites a fire strong enough to move stubborn muscles to smile, or hug, or weep. The intersection of faith and compassion is the very definition of the human condition. It is not our ability to tear one another down that makes us who we are. It is our ability to build each other up, to reach for a hand in the dark and find a willing, outstretched palm.
I could have chosen to live with my own discomfort of religion that day. I could have chosen not to pray. Instead, I chose compassion. I chose to be there for someone else, selflessly, in their time of need. I put my own ego and personal opinions aside and was allowed a beautiful glimpse of the perserverance of the human spirit.