October 21, 2013

Searching the Obvious

As I drive into the designated “Volunteer/Aid” parking area, I feel as though I have lost my ability to speak. My friend Tori and I have traveled the 120 miles from our homes to Oklahoma. Her friend Veronica is directing relief services there, and we have been invited to help. The early-morning clouds have not bled any sunlight on the wreckage. I look around in disbelief. No news story has appropriately captured what is here.

As we head toward our designated work area, we walk past canvas tents with people sitting on aluminum foldout chairs. Some have casts on their arms and legs, neck braces, and others have less-visible but equally painful breaks and bruises, as their eyes fix on what “used to be” before the tornado.

Our jobs are simple: prepare emergency boxes with blankets, first aid kits, water, nonperishable food items, information packets for a variety of assistance sources, and probably most important: hope.

As we prepare packages at the back of the tent, I can hear Veronica and her colleagues working with now homeless, displaced people on a one-on-one basis. As I fold blankets into boxes, I hear small vignettes of the conversations, mainly from those seeking help: “I used to live over there; where will I live now?” “My husband is walking near what was our home, just looking for pictures, just pictures.” “I don’t have any family [sobbing begins]; oh, dear God, what do I do?”

Tori and I exchange glances of sadness at what we hear.We continue working on packages in an assembly line of complete strangers. There is no laughter. There is nothing to say. Just silence.

After four hours of preparing packages, Veronica asks if Tori and I would like to take some water bottles and snacks out to the many people in line. The many people in line? Only about 10 people were in line when we arrived. She points to a small transport vehicle packed with water, snacks, and fruit. Tori and I will begin at the start of the line and another transport vehicle will begin at the end of the line. Nobody will have to wait long. As we walk out of the tent the unexpected view brings us to a halt. More than 100 people stand in line, some of them children. Dear God, if this is heartbreaking for me, what must it be for You? As Tori drives carefully over the debris and unpredictable terrain, I try to put on my best smile as I hand out water and snacks.

Along the line I spot a gentleman immersed in reading, not noticing us coming his way. “Would you like some water, sir?”

The stranger looks at me and smiles. He is an older gentleman, reading a small, wet Bible. “I was just reading about that in here: living water.His name is Ben. He tells me he found the Bible in the rubble and picked it up, anticipating a long wait in line. “You know, I grew up around these, but never read one.” He shrugs, shakes his head. He looks at me as though he has just asked a question and is waiting for an answer. But the answer doesn’t come from me.

A couple standing behind him join our conversation. They introduce themselves as Erin and John. The three of them exchange introductions and locations of where their homes were located before the storm. I stand, water in hand, listening, unaware of what is about to take place. As they talk, John reaches into a makeshift blanket/backpack and holds out an unexpected item: a Bible.

“Ben, you keep on reading. But here, take mine; it’s dry.”

As these new friends exchange Bibles, the climate seems to change. The cloudy morning is irrelevant. The hopelessness will have an end. I feel the warmth of God’s divine presence in a broken place. What is present here? Much grace and mercy.