Storm and Redemption

1 May

Yesterday afternoon, I was celebrating the end of another semester of classes with colleagues in the Physics Lab, which offers the ideal combination of a full fridge for the beer and long counters for the chips. We were having a grand time sharing a wide range of topics – most interestingly the century-old tradition of tying cameras to homing pigeons and having the fowl take shots from the, well, bird’s eye view – when a friend said something even more surprising.

“So April 27th was the anniversary of the tornado,” she said.

“How did you know?” I asked.

“It was all over the Weather Channel Friday.”

Of course it would be. Even as I watched all the confused footage that night a little more than a year ago, it hit me that my hometown, in a matter of an hour, had surreally become the latest American town to be defined by a natural disaster. I’ve devoted numerous entries here to volunteer efforts to help Tuscaloosa, Alabama recover from a tornado that killed, at last count, 53 people. The path of devastation will scar both landscapes and lives for years to come.

I spent much of this April 27th scanning The Tuscaloosa News, which had just won a Pulitzer for its tornado coverage, reading quality general summary and first-person accounts, along with a myth-busting column in which they’d refuted a wide range of rumors, including that of either a dog or baby (it varies from story to story) dropping out of the tornado, alive and healthy, in a city an hour away.

I also checked the various references on Facebook pages.

Amid all these posts, I found not only sorrow, but redemption. Consider two posts by my sister, Mary Leach.

The day before the anniversary: “A year ago today I was driving by sights that I have known all my life, not knowing that I would never see them again.”

Or on Sunday, two days after the anniversary.

“This time last year we went to church. We walked past National Guardsmen with machine guns, we sat in the dark with no AC. We sat with church members who had lost everything, nothing, and all points in between. We cried, we prayed, we grieved, but we were there. It remains the most powerful worship service I was ever a part of, before or since.”

Out of such mutual vulnerability and mutual faith, ordinary human beings can band together to accomplish extraordinary things. Not that it’s easy. Six weeks after the tornado, in my first visit after the tornado, I sat in my old church’s makeshift sanctuary, listening to a preacher warn us about the spiritual challenges ahead. He compared the spiritual high of the Pentecost to that of the early weeks of selfless volunteerism, the ways in which people came together in the wake of the storm … and the long hard slog that is faith after the ecstasy. “And so here we are, brothers and sisters, we are witnesses, martyrs, and the euphoria’s quickly draining, and the short-term workers are going home … and soon, it will seem as if Christ is no longer here as well.” He paused then, added an unscripted remark. “And it is going to be hot!

And it was hot, almost hot enough to make me pass out as I made my own clumsy efforts doing debris removal – a process that, while necessary, made once lush landscapes just that much emptier. But next time down, six months later with a SEND mission group from Assumption College, new homes were springing up. Including, of course, the one our students worked on. I double-checked this weekend with our Habitat supervisor down in Tuscaloosa, and Dewayne Searcy told me that the Tuscaloosa Habitat is starting its 17th house since the storm – a staggering achievement.

I could end this by wondering why it takes a natural disaster for everyone – me included – to achieve such levels of energized compassion, or speculate on what we all we could achieve by applying such intensity to a broader agenda of service. But, if it’s not already too late, I’d rather resist the aesthetic need for a tidy ending.

Instead, I’ll end on one last testimonial by Mary, the one she posted on the anniversary itself.

“ ‘It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.’”-Charles Dickens

“It was beyond dreadful, but it was also beyond wonderful. There was a spirit in the air during those days and weeks that is impossible to describe. For just a moment there was no black or white, rich or poor, Christian or otherwise. There was help and be helped, love and be loved. I saw God everywhere I looked, dressed in skin. As awful as it was, I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.”

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