Assumption in Tornado Country (Day 1)

5 Jan
Damaged roof of my home church, Covenant Presbyterian, June, 2011.

Eight months after the tornado, we follow its path through a once cozy neighborhood of Tuscaloosa, Alabama – Forest Lake. The forest is mostly gone, the few standing trees bare of not only foliage but also any smaller limbs; instead of softening the landscape, these amputees have been rendered into jagged silhouettes, looming against the stark backdrop of a mostly house-less landscape.

As the van nears a corner of the lake, I point out the site where, last June, I fell in with a multi-generational group of volunteers from a Church of Christ up in Tennessee, lugging sawed limbs and planks from houses up to the curb in near 100-degree heat, taking shelter in the shade offered by a shell of a house – only to learn later that the house belonged to someone I knew.

But that feeling of connection pales in comparison to the bond I feel on this surreal day, because this time around, the students who ride behind me in this van are from Assumption College. Thanks to the coordination of campus minister Vinnie Sullivan-Jacques and the escorting of Paul Belsito, the college’s executive assistant for government and community relations, the New England college where I teach has come to aid my Deep South hometown.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised. The college has a long tradition of mission trips during winter and spring breaks, as well as in May, when I’m escorting a group to Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. The SEND – which originally stood for Students Exploring New Destinations – service immersion  adventures blend earnest service to communities in need with education about that region’s culture, as well as nightly spiritual reflection. Doing a SEND trip has been on my radar for a long time; when the massive tornado blew a mile-wide, six-mile long path through the center of my hometown – killing at least 43 people in the process – I suggested Tuscaloosa be added to the list, only to find out we were booked for the foreseeable future.

Then, in November, an hour before I was going to make my reservations to fly to Alabama and California for part of Christmas, Vinnie contacted me to say that another trip had fallen through. Could we make this work on such short notice? We quickly found an opportunity to build through Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa; it took another month to iron out the lodging, which finally, after much patience and persistence from Vinnie, came thanks to an organization called United Saints – a recovery project that started in post-Katrina New Orleans.

And now, surreally, here we are.

Despite the early morning departure from Logan, the students were almost chipper when they met me and the United Saints representatives at their lodgings. Soon after piling their sleeping bags into their new bunk beds, they were ready to go to the campus of my alma mater, where they could stretch their legs in the relative warmth of an afternoon in the high 40s. I walked them past Foster Auditorium – where Alabama Gov. George Wallace had made his symbolic “Stand in the Schoolhouse Door” against the integration plans advocated by President John F. Kennedy – and the President’s Mansion which had been saved from being burned to the ground by the pleas of the president’s wife, who softened the heart of the Union officer in charge. We compared our foot and hand prints to those left by the great Alabama football captains of the past, from Joe Willie Namath and Ken Stabler to Cornelius Bennett and Javier Arenas – the last of whom barely survived the storm, and then drove supplies back from Kansas City, where he now plays for the Chiefs. To my surprise, they had already decided as a group to throw themselves into the sports culture – it was clear that we had to buy their Crimson Tide t-shirts as soon as possible. They also made it clear that the cultural immersion aspect of the SEND philosophy mandated we see Monday’s national championship game with LSU at a public locale that captured the region. (We’ll see on that one.)

Students pose under statue of Alabama football legend Paul "Bear" Bryant

But the tornado eclipses even Alabama football. Following the storm’s path for a mile on the way home, students ask questions about growing up in a tornado zone, but mostly I just hear sighs and “wows.” Back at their new home, the mood  lightens as they make fun of my accent, listen as I claim that they haven’t heard an accent yet until they hear that of my mother – on her way across town, bearing the students extra pillows.

Sure enough, when I walk Mom into the living room and she says, “Well, hello,” students explode in laughter as if it’s the funniest thing they’ve ever heard. As I watch the good-hearted exchange, an extraordinary warmth sweeps over me – a deep gratitude to be serving a college where such cultural encounters are possible, involving young adults as special as these.

But I’m not the only one feeling grateful. My mother starts to say the routine thing – to thank them for coming – only then her voice fails her and her eyes start to moisten. “We’ve been through so much,” she says, then trails off.

Then we play the DVD documentary she’s brought, “Faces of the Storm.” We sit in the dark, absorbing the story of those who survived the tornado – and those who did not. We might well meet many of them before we leave.

And tomorrow we’ll take our place alongside them.

The Three Nicks: Finan (L), DiAntonio (R) and Saban

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