Michael and Angela share the first mattress on the left as you enter the shelter. Both in their mid-twenties, are trying to occupy their three daughters in the midst of the chaos around them. There is a panicky energy about them; the kind of uneasy tension that comes when one is lost and without direction, running low on hope. They are stranded in a small rural shelter in Alabama, over 175 miles from their home in New Orleans; a home that is no longer standing.
“We were hoping to leave New Orleans anyway” says Michael, trying to find an upside to his situation. “I just want to find work and get a place for my family to live. I’m a good carpenter and I’ll work hard.”
Myrna is across the shelter on the opposite wall. She is a single mother with two daughters: a twelve-year-old, basketball star/honor student and a two-year-old toddler, who isn’t quite sure where she is and why she can’t go home. “This is the third shelter we’ve been in since the storm” Myna said. “Every time they move us we get farther from home.” Home is Pascagoula, MS about 50 miles away. Myrna and her children were awakened by the rush of water rising against their front door. The hurricane they thought was far enough west had made a last second jog to the east, and now the storm surge threatened her family’s survival. Kicking out a window, Myrna and her children escaped by foot to a near by fire station where they rode out the storm huddled together on the second floor.
Myrna starts to cry quietly. “I try not to let the children see me upset. My twelve-year-old is already so hurt. Every time it rains or she sees lightning, she starts to panic.” Myrna works in housekeeping for a hotel that no longer exists. She has no vehicle, no clothes, no money. “I don’t know where I am going from here. I have family in Atlanta so I guess I’ll go there for a while. I want to get away from the coast. I don’t want my babies to go through any of this again.”
Harry is a young black man sitting at a table in the middle of the coliseum with his daughter Chrissie (age 2) and his son Harry II (age 5). He is a baker from New Orleans, forced to flee his home after the first levy near his house broke open. Stressed, tired, and burdened with the appearance of a much older man, Harry is without job, home, transportation, and family support. “I don’t know where the rest of my family is. I can’t get them on the phone or anything. I’m divorced from the children’s mother and I don’t even know if she’s dead or alive.”
I offered Harry my cell phone and he tried repeatedly to reach his father. Each time the call failed to go through, another layer of tension covered his face; his eyes spoke desperation. As a volunteer brought around vanilla wafers, his eyes filled with tears. “Do you mind if I go outside and smoke?” Harry asked. He left his kids in the care of two strangers while he went out to recoup his strength and refuel his determination. Chrissie colored flowers in a book while Harry II and I played with a hot wheels car. I wonder how Harry will manage.
Lucy is 72 and the matriarch of her New Orleans family. Her bed is lined against the very back wall of the facility, children and grandchildren on all sides. Her legs are swollen as she sits on a makeshift bed. When I approached Lucy her eyes brightened as she engaged and told her story of evacuation. Under her coordination all of the family was summoned together. “Some wanted to stay but I told them no! There was no way I was going to risk any of my children or grandbabies. We left as a family knowing there may not be anything to home to.”
Now there is nothing to come home to. All are without homes and all are without employment. But Lucy saw to it that all escaped with their lives. I looked Lucy’s way later in the day when no one was talking to her. Her face was sad, her spirit worn. She seemed somehow smaller in stature than when I spoke to her earlier. I had the distinct sense that Lucy is the epitome of survival. Growing up black and poor in the inner city had toughened her, but it also had taxed her. Now late in years she faces perhaps the crowning blow and dear Lucy is tired. I prayed right then for her resilience knowing that she is the rock of that entire clan.
Earl is a huge man in this 50’s standing near his bed in the center row. About 6’ 5” and standing straight as a board, he stares across the room with vacant eyes that speak of despair. Timidly I touched him on the shoulder and asked if he was ok (dumb question I know). “Not really” he said. But he tolerated my clumsy beginning and began to talk. He pointed to his “companion” of the past 10 years. “I’m worried about her. She can’t hold up” Earl said. His partner Beverly is around the same age, but very obese. She struggles to get comfortable on a metal chair that was never created for all-day sitting.
The two fled Moss Point, MS the night of the storm, staying in a shelter at a local elementary school. “The place nearly fell in on us” Earl said. “They weren’t prepared for a storm like this.” Now in their third shelter in five days, Earl wonders how he will get home and where he will live. “Our apartment house is destroyed so I don’t know where we will go.” Both Earl and Beverly are on disability due to medical problems so they have income that will continue. But government checks don’t go far when you need a home, car, food, and clothing to be totally replaced. “Is there anything I can get you right now that would help” I asked. Earl thought a few seconds and then said “Could you just find me a toothbrush and some toothpaste? We haven’t even been able to brush our teeth in days. I’d love a shower but right now I’ll settle for a way to clean my mouth.” Earl was a man reduced to the most finite of requests. I made sure he got what he needed.
Raschad is a young woman near the front door, trying to corral six children by herself. In her early thirties she is vigorous and attentive to her little ones. The children are restless, bored, and fussy. Raschad’s patience is great and her love obvious. Her husband left early this morning to work “day labor” for a local clean-up crew. “At least we’ll have some money coming in” she says. Her family hails from a small Mississippi town near the center of the hurricane. “Everything is gone. I don’t think there is anything to go back to.”
Raschad says she is grateful to have her family alive. She forces a smile but her sadness cannot be contained. “I wonder where my children will go to school; where we will live; how my husband will find work. Can you try to reach my family on your cell phone?” I listen, I encourage, I punch in the phone number, and we hear that “all circuits are busy.” Raschad thanks me. I am deeply aware of how helpless I am to help her.
Verne must be about 55. He lies on his left side, his gaze fixed on nothing. I startled Verne as I knelt down beside him. I ask how he is doing and he responds in a somewhat incoherent speech. Rambling and repeating himself, Verne grows increasingly confused and frustrated. He doesn’t understand where he is or why he is here. He understands there was a hurricane but he can’t comprehend why he can’t go home to Gulfport. Unshaven and unkempt Verne is almost flat in his expression. I wonder if he has psychiatric issues or is his mental struggle related entirely to the trauma he has endured.
“I need something, I need something” Verne kept saying. “What do you need” I asked. “I need something, I need something” he continued. Finally in frustration he shakes his head and closes his eyes. For several minutes he refused to respond. As I start to stand Verne opens his eyes: “I need some clothes man. I need some pants and shoes.” “What size Verne” I asked. Frustrated again with my ineptitude, Verne struggles to tell me but simply can’t get the words to work. “Verne” I said, “I think you and I are about the same size. I’ll find you some clothes at home and bring them back to you.” Nodding his head in agreement Verne squeezed my right wrist. I make a note on my legal pad: “Find Verne some pants and shoes TODAY.”
Michael and Angela express no knowledge of Jesus. They are running on sheer human gumption. They so badly need the peace of the Savior. How do I help them see Him?
Myrna looks down at the ground when asked about the Lord. One has a sense that she feels ashamed of herself more than she is angry with God. I wonder why. What has she done and what has been done to her?
Harry says he is a believer but didn’t know the name of his church. He grows anxious and fidgety; he wants to borrow the phone again. How will he endure without the Lord?
Lucy is sure that her family is “blessed” by God, but does she really know Christ in a personal way? She says she doesn’t go to church but believes in God. Where is the bridge that connects her to the Lamb?
Earl tenses up when asked about his spiritual life. “I used to be a Baptist” he said, “but now I have done backslid.” What does he mean? What has caused him to withdraw from the truth he claims to know. Beverly just looks down and says she doesn’t go to church. Somehow the mention of Christ has broken our rapport.
Raschad says she is a Christian but is too busy to talk about it “right now.” She returns her energy and focus to the kids. I have somehow been dismissed. Does she feel forsaken? Is she angry? Why can we speak of anything but Jesus?
When asked Verne looks at the Bible given to him by the Southern Baptists who are managing the shelter. “So you are a Christian man” I asked. “Yep” he says…nothing more. Does Verne even understand my question? How do I know if he is saved?
That concluded my first afternoon at the shelter. I wanted to bolt out the door and never come back. The grief was too great, the suffering seemingly endless. “What is God doing” I asked myself as I got into my car. “What sense are we to make of all this pain.” Then I recalled the Lord’s words, given through the prophet Isaiah:
Seek the Lord while He may be found,
Call upon Him while He is near.
Let the wicked forsake his way,
And the unrighteous man his thoughts;
Let him return to the Lord,
And He will have mercy on him;
And to our God,
For He will abundantly pardon. (Is 55:6-7)
As I read the Scripture, somehow I took solace in knowing that God is doing what God always does: He is addressing Himself to the eternal spirit of man, not to the physical only. Humans cope with life in the immediate; God gives life that is everlasting.
God is attending to the sinful nature of humankind, asking the “wicked to forsake his way.” He assures us that he is “near” and awaiting our return. His mercy is promised, His “pardon” assured.
His Word reassures me that while I don’t understand His thoughts and actions, He is indeed in control. There are no situations, needs, catastrophes, or blessings that are outside of His authority and plan.
For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
So are My ways higher than your ways,
And My thoughts than your thoughts (Is 55:8-9).
In the midst of His movement God reminds us that we are incapable of understanding His thoughts and His ways. They are “higher” than ours; perfectly measured with heavenly justice and love; a precise application of discipline and redemption that is beyond the human psyche.
Our Lord has a purpose and function for everything, even our pain and despair. Whatever He speaks; whatever He creates; whatever He allows; will serve a precise and perfect function. Nothing God does returns empty; His work always bears fruit.
For as the rain comes down, and the snow from heaven,
And do not return there,
But water the earth,
And make it bring forth and bud,
That it may give seed to the sower
And bread to the eater,
So shall My word be that goes forth from My mouth;
It shall not return to Me void,
But it shall accomplish what I please,
And it shall prosper in the thing for which I sent it”(Is 55:10-11).
So whatever is “sent” by our Heavenly Father “shall accomplish” whatever He pleases. Our Heavenly Father seeks to build His Kingdom; to call His creations to Himself; and to give anyone who will accept His Son a home that transcends all of life’s suffering. The Apostle Paul, who knew earthly suffering all too well wrote:
For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory which shall be revealed in us (Romans 8:18).
As Christians we must maintain a vision of “the glory which shall be revealed…” Dear God help me to convey what awaits the believer. Help me to deliver your good and perfect Word. Help me to honor the gift of Jesus this day. Lord make yourself known to: Michael and Angela and their babies at your appointed time; Myrna and her kids; Harry, Harry II and Chrissie; Lucy and her family; Raschad, her husband, and six growing children; Earl and Beverly; and dear Verne. Thank you that your word does not return void. Amen.