Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Touched by the Desperation of the Desperate

It's an iconic photo of the days of the Great Depression. 

Mother, huddled with her children, under a crude tarp with not much to eat.

For generations we have seen this picture and connected with it because it is real.  The worn, hungry look is evident.  I suppose we even read despair into the eyes of the child and mom. 

It strikes me as curious that they are not looking into the camera.  Just like today.  When we see someone like her, next to the street holding a sign, asking for help, we look away just as they begin to make eye contact.  In a talk with someone who works with homeless people regularly, I am told that one of the interactions they miss most is eye contact.  There once was a time when the person asking would not look you in the eye.  Now, it's the person who could offer help that won't make contact.

As if making that human connection would touch us too much.  It might make us take an action that we had not planned. 

IF we connected, then . . . what?

We might be able to lift her burden?
We might be committed to finding out about HOW someone like her got to where she is?

We might find that, instead of her being very unlike me, I am very, very close to being like her?

I was recently in Elk City, Oklahoma, visiting at a non-profit that was hosting our MobileSmiles Oklahoma program.  The Western Oklahoma Family Care Center (www.westokfcc.come) is working intently and intentionally to address the needs of so many in less populated parts of the state.  WOFCC is a faith-based program which puts together resources so that a family can come to just one location and be offered the help they need.

And more.

Tim Ball, the Executive Director of WOFCC and I had a great discussion about what they do and it is so much more than just providing a hand-out to someone in need.  Their work is about creating a community which finds those who are in need and helps connect them with churches and other groups to build skills, if skills are needed, educate, when this provides an answer, connect to jobs, housing and the resources necessary to get back on their feet - with a chance to stay there. 

Even better, they connect them to a church that works to find more permanent solutions for the problems the person or family is experiencing. 

Tim and I talked about what he called the "desperation of the desperate" and explained that every one of us is touched by it. 

We see it when we pass through an intersection and people are asking for handouts. 
We see it when we go into "those" areas of town and see people laying under bridges, against buildings, in parks.
We smell it when we walk past those who are "homeless" as we have come to define it.

A few Saturdays ago, I was going into the downtown Oklahoma City Library at opening time (9:00 a.m.).  The homeless heading into the library looked like a line of ants heading from all over the downtown area to the one door at the entry.  Their faces reminded me of the woman in the picture above.  Limited expression.  Determined to get by one more day.  For them, it seemed, just getting in was the drive that propelled them onward.

The biggest issue that we discussed about all of this, however, is that we can offer help and hope IF we can create community.  Community which reaches out to lift up those around us from the despair of poverty and being alone.

Tim raised an interesting point:
"Darkness is driving people - all of us - into isolation; away from community.  Segments of our societies have become desperate - their fault, my fault, nobody's fault.  They are resorting to desperate means to resolve their desperation, and our society is responding with isolation rather than community.  Isolation increases darkness - while community drives it away.  We can build taller, more secure fences around ourselves and install generators for our homes , but we still have to drive through the desperation to get to work and the grocery store.  What if we focused on restoring community instead of promoting isolation?  What if we no longer felt the need to isolate ourselves from the desperation of others?"
Can churches and non-profits work together to become community builders?  If we have the light within us, can we reach out and help someone else - light their candle?  Help them to recognize their natural worth as a human being.  Not someone to be shunned.  To be avoided.  To be looked away from. 

If we can help restore the idea of community around us, then each of us can extend our hand to help a person who has stumbled along the way.  And offer them the light that Jesus calls to shine through in each of our lives.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Sanitized Reality

It's been a very difficult and sad time in Oklahoma the last 14 days.

We have had the eyes of the world turned to look at us - again - because of the disaster that comes from the sky in our part of the world.  Tornado damage is much worse than the television pictures can relate.  The destruction is impossible to believe until you see it with your own eyes.  As you take in the power of an EF-5 tornado, you also smell the aroma of devastation. 

This never comes across to you, sitting safely in a protected home or office.  It's a sanitized reality through the tv screen.

Gas, dust, dead animals, lumber, something burned, moldy and wet items that once had value - all ruined and worth nothing in the blink of an eye - and all contributing to an odor that is not forgettable.  If you don't live in the television coverage area then you are not likely to keep seeing the on-going challenges of recovery.  It is easy to move on the next catastrophe, become consumed by it for a few days and then move on the next.  And so on and so on . . ..

The world sees these images, absent the smells, feels badly for a time and wonders why people continue to live in Oklahoma.  It is a question actually posed on chat sites, blogs, news articles.  It is heard in conversations with people from "outside" with whom we do business or have other connections. 

I suppose even old Oklahoma storm-season veterans think about that question sometimes - although few would ever admit it.  We stay for a lot of reasons.  For some, it's where home has always been.  Others, moved here and found it a good place for business.  Oklahoma is a place where neighbors pitch in to help.  Frankly, if you ever have a serious problem where you just need a helping hand, Oklahoma is a good place for you to be. 

It gets me thinking, though, about whether it is worth it to stay?

You know, even as clean up was starting, more storms hit.  Hail.  Rain.  Lightening.  More tornado threats.  Just a few days ago another series of awful tornadoes hit - coupled with flooding rains.  Taking more lives.  Destroying more.  Wearing us down with warnings, watches and threats.  There is a storm fatigue taking over in many places.  There is more on tap for us this week. 

And we don't even have the last one cleaned up yet.

So why do we stay?  What is here?

Could it be the fact that before the tornadoes were even finished in their destruction, there were churches mobilizing to help.  First they called for prayer.  Then they called for action.  Churches of all backgrounds - all faiths - working alongside each other in an effort of . . . relief.

I think it is and, perhaps, that is what I have been inspired about more than anything in the face of disaster.  It's the faith that people put in God and in each other. 

We hear a lot, from people outside of Oklahoma, a lot of ridiculing the faith that inspires us.  Ricky Gervais, the creator of "The Office," tweeted:
Praying for something but not doing anything to make it happen has the same effect as writing to Santa & not letting mummy read the letter.
He even pushed a thought in his Twitter account:  #ActuallyDoSomethingForOklahoma

I don't know anything about the man except that I have enjoyed his tv show over the years.  I can't tell you what he sees or knows.  Not even if he has ever been to Oklahoma to feel the palpable sense that here - prayer, churches, faith - does become real action.  Maybe he knows this passage from the Book of James and maybe he doesn't.  But it fits his idea - one that has sparked controversy because it is being read as "hating" those who say they are "praying for Oklahoma."  But he is right:
14-17 Dear friends, do you think you’ll get anywhere in this if you learn all the right words but never do anything? Does merely talking about faith indicate that a person really has it? For instance, you come upon an old friend dressed in rags and half-starved and say, “Good morning, friend! Be clothed in Christ! Be filled with the Holy Spirit!” and walk off without providing so much as a coat or a cup of soup—where does that get you? Isn’t it obvious that God-talk without God-acts is outrageous nonsense?
18 I can already hear one of you agreeing by saying, “Sounds good. You take care of the faith department, I’ll handle the works department.”
Not so fast. You can no more show me your works apart from your faith than I can show you my faith apart from my works. Faith and works, works and faith, fit together hand in glove.
19-20 Do I hear you professing to believe in the one and only God, but then observe you complacently sitting back as if you had done something wonderful? That’s just great. Demons do that, but what good does it do them? Use your heads! Do you suppose for a minute that you can cut faith and works in two and not end up with a corpse on your hands? (James 2:14-20, The Message).

We don't have churches that just meet on Sundays to lift prayers that God may help us and consider that "good."  In Oklahoma, our faith drives us to show compassion, to give a helping hand, to give blood and money and food and water, to take time off from paid work because fellow Oklahomans need help.  Right now.  Not when it is convenient.

Most interestingly, for someone, like Gervais, who sees us from an outside perspective, all kinds of churches and beliefs (which might disagree in some theological way) are working side-by-side.  Churches of Christ, Baptists, Mennonites, Methodists, atheists - all can be found working with each other in the common bond of helping our hurting neighbors.  We know, all too truthfully, that we could be next in needing that same coming together.

That's the reality on the ground in Oklahoma.  From the time weather forecasters begin to warn us to be "weather aware," we take action.  We check in with our family and neighbors to be sure they know it could be rough.  We pray that the damage might be slight or that the storm might not be as bad as believed.  We pray for strength to overcome the reality of disaster - that we might know how to help - that our prayers may become the actions of our hands.

TV makes the disasters look cleaner than they are.  It allows people to make judgments that they are in no position to make.  To criticize and to demonize those who are doing the best they can in a hard and tough situation. 

The sanitized reality gives those people the clean conscious to say whatever they like about us.

Those of us living in the disaster zones know the truth - the faith of our neighbors and the actions caused by that faith make this a great place to live.  Because we know we are not going through all of this alone.