In the immediate aftermath of the May 20th tornado, the entire community of Moore was still in shock. First responders were flooding in. Cell phone towers were commandeered. The National Guard shut down the city. Loved ones were dead or missing. So many of us had no idea what to say or how to feel. You can see a brief reflection I wrote for the Huffington Post that week by clicking here.
Now, however, as July begins and individuals and groups from all over the nation and really the world have poured in – and as the money and supplies have continued to roll in – people are in the mental and emotional place where distance from the event has cleared their minds. With this clarity also comes clarity to see the short-term and long-term goals for recovery.
Having served in a church that has been an active place during recovery – like our sister churches at CrossTimbers, New Life, and Saint Andrew’s – we have been so amazed and so blessed by the outpouring of love that has been coming from … well … all over the place. Everyone is wanting to help, to give, to serve – and our community is much better because of so much love and care known now as the “Oklahoma Standard.”
As time went on after the 20th and the 31st, we began to see other kinds of items coming in. These items we weren’t as sure what to do with. I remember opening my first UPS-shipped box of wrinkled clothes reeking of cigarette smoke with a note that read:
“I have been needing these out of the house for a while now so I thought I’d send it to you guys at the church.”
Another box came in that had a lamp that didn’t work, an oven mitt, and a boom box that played cassette tapes. Yet another arrived with blankets and wool scarves. I just didn’t know how I could hand a family who lost everything a wool scarf in June in Oklahoma. I began to wonder what these people were thinking when they decided to mail in these goods.
Then, we encountered people who wanted to give, but only in a certain way. These were gifts with strings attached. “I want to give this money, but only to a local church, only to a family of three, and only people who will submit their net income and what their deductibles and premiums are so we know absolutely for sure that they need this money we might be giving you.” Why on God’s good, green earth would any group offering immediate assistance in the aftermath of a natural disaster want to accept money with that much red tape? The metaphor for this kind of giving is making the family bend over backwards while you stand on one leg and hand them the money while also rubbing your belly and patting your head.
Finally, there were the groups asking to come in – even churches from our conference – who were upset and even became difficult to deal with because the availability of the homeowners to receive help was not fitting neatly into the schedule of their mission team. We organize mission work based upon the needs of the homeowners, not upon the needs of the mission teams. This isn’t to be inflexible or hateful, it is to honor the ones who are in need and help them out at their pace. There are too many families in this community who had individuals, groups, and churches come onto their property and clear it away before the family even had a chance to dig through the remains for items precious to them.
When people send what they’ve cleared out from their garage, attic, or closet; when people register with us to serve the community on their terms alone; when people send dollar bills with so many strings attached they end up dancing like a marionette; and when we say “No, thank you” to those offers, the general response we have received is the same question in the title of this post:
“What do you mean you don’t need my help?!”
To one grumpy giver, a volunteer working in our tornado relief office said,
“Everything these families own is already broken – we don’t really need your things that are broken.”
If we are to truly love our neighbors as we love ourselves, then we need to step back and think about the ways in which we give.
This concept applies both inside and outside of times of disaster. It was Jesus of Nazareth who said in the Sermon on the Mount,
But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also; 40and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; 41and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. 42Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
For some, the emphasis has been reversed: a church needs to accept the help it is offered, regardless of the needs of the community. We must reverse the idea, and seek to provide what is being asked for. There are three ways that everyone, follower of Christ or not, can make this happen:
1) Be okay with waiting. You not being present the day after a storm hits does not mean you won’t get to help. There is plenty to do.
2) Be okay with sending only what is asked for. At first, having a toy or clothing drive for a group you love sounds exciting and garners a great deal of support from your community. But we would often receive Facebook messages saying, “We have already collected _____ and we need your address.” Be okay with waiting to send what is asked for.
3) Be okay with helping differently than you had imagined or intended. There are all kinds of people in this world who need all kinds of help. Anyone who is able to send monetary donations is automatically equipped to help. But if the only days you can help are days that mission offices are closed, find another way to serve – perhaps even in a capacity that has nothing to do with what is being covered on the news. We are all called to minister to those in need.
In the future, when this happens again somewhere soon and the world turns to look, remember these things that I have learned in being in the midst of a community in recovery:
1) If you are not a part of a professional team of first-responders known and respected or invited by officials, wait for the short-term to come help. The most helpful teams that we have experienced have leaders who have said, “Call when you need us.”
2) Throw away your broken lamp. Don’t mail it in for tornado relief.
3) If you have gently used good condition clothing to donate, wash it, dry it, and fold it. Call and ask if it is needed. If it is, send it folded. You are sending to families who no longer have washers and dryers. If it isn’t needed, don’t send it – give it to Goodwill or the Salvation Army, or even your local community’s clothing closet.
4) If you are going to give money and you don’t want to give it to a large non-profit and want it to go directly to a local church, find out if they are accepting donations or requesting they be forwarded to an organization like UMCOR, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (for which 100% of donations go to relief). If they are accepting donations, just send it. Don’t call or write ahead with your stipulations. This places a burden on staff and volunteers and ties up valuable time. Give knowing the church you are giving to will get that money to a family in need.
5) If you are a United Methodist Church, PAY YOUR APPORTIONMENTS AND GIVE TO THE ADVANCE. “When Mother Nature Rocks, UMCOR Rolls,” to turn an oft-quoted phrase, but not without the dollars, hands, and feet of the Connection.
6) Help whether or not you or your group will get coverage. There are many who help and by the time they are through the homeowner has posed in a picture for the group’s website, the homeowners have a sign in their yard stating who cleaned up, and the homeowners are on a mailing list that will lead to requesting their attendance at events and their monetary donations for the group’s budget. There were some in our church who were upset because we weren’t on the front page or in the evening anchor’s headlines. We cannot control the media, and our community assistance remains just that with or without media coverage.
It seems odd, but in reflecting on these odd ways of giving I was drawn to the words of Sirius Black, the animagus and godfather of Harry Potter, in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire: “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.” If my life is emerging from the rubble of my home, I need your new coat or even the money you were saving for that new thing you were wanting, not your broken lamp. Moreover, I need your love, your prayers, and your willingness to assist me in the ways I actually need. Scripture points out more than once that even those who are evil, when their child is hungry, give the child a fish and not a snake.
In closing, we need more fish and less snakes… (and for you to read the Harry Potter series if you haven’t. There’s a little of the logos spermatikos in there, I reckon.) Don’t be a grumpy giver. Be a generous giver, “For God loves a person who gives grumpily cheerfully.” II Cor. 9:7