“We’re all in the same boat.”
--New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu
Déjà vu all over again.
That's a cliché but one that is so true when it comes to hurricanes and tropical storms and life on the Gulf Coast of the United States. Hurricane Harvey hit Houston last week almost twelve years to the day after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Now Hurricane Irma is a potential threat too. And so then and now we all watched on TV and viewed online and read the papers and saw the horrific images. Folks clinging to each other, wading through the waters, sitting shell shocked and soaked in the boats that ferried them away from their homes, their lives.
It’s hard to capture in words the devastation of a hurricane.
Standing in a place like New Orleans post-Katrina in March of 2006, I felt as if I’d landed on another planet. The church I served had sent me and a group of volunteers to help. Even seven months after the deluge, the level of destruction then was overwhelming. Upwards of 10,000 ruined cars sat under an elevated interstate highway. House after house in the city sported a muddy brown line on the exterior, demarcating the level to which the floodwaters had risen. A moldy and sharp smell lingered in the air.
Our group worked with a man to clean out the water logged home where he had raised a family and made a life for twenty years. His wife and daughters were in Houston, along with tens of thousands of displaced folks. On the surface that homeowner and I could not have been more different from one another. He was African-American, a long haul truck driver, a lifelong resident of Louisiana, with an easy smile that belied the trauma he no doubt felt in returning to see his home for the first time in half a year.
Me? I was the white Yankee pastor coming in for just one week; coming from a neighborhood where the houses were big and pristine and undamaged, in an old, old New England town, where most of those I served worked in high tech or banking with advanced degrees galore. You could say before Katrina, he and I were traveling in very separate boats in this life. Chances are we’d never have met and gotten to know each other.
Then the storm hit.
And so together, as partners, for three days we worked side by side to tear out soggy sheet rock and drag out ruined furniture. We salvaged the soaked and mud stained remnants of his life: a wedding album, a family Bible, a stuffed animal. It was heartbreaking and backbreaking work. The day we left we exchanged big bear hugs and shed so many tears.
Because we were no longer strangers. No: we were now neighbors and friends. Bound for life by the compassionate work of helping when the worst hits. Bound as fellow citizens, Americans and children of God. All together, in just one boat.
The one boat called life.
The tragedy, the irony, is that it took and it takes something so calamitous as a hurricane or a tropical storm or a 9/11 to bring us together. To remind us there is so much more that binds us than divides us. How easily and quickly we forget this truth. Natural disasters are a cruel reminder that we are all in just one boat, together. The torrential rains that lashed Texas and Louisiana made no distinction as they soaked the ground and flooded the streets and uprooted hundreds of thousands of people. Every one was swept up in it: all races and cultures, all religions and sexual orientations, the rich and the poor, blue collar and white collar, conservative and liberal.
And our national response, our commitment to help, is just the same. We are together in this work to rebuild and respond. Donations and volunteers pour in and step up to help: from Trump country and Hillary land, from New York City and Nashville, from Muslims and Christians and Jews, for Gods sake, for human’s sake, from the coasts and the heartland, from all across the United States. Hurricane Harvey has woken us up again to a reality we seem to forget in this life.
At a time in our history as a nation, when it feels as if we are so divided, Harvey is a wake up call, a communal summons to action and mercy and generosity. So pray for our neighbors down south. Give to our neighbors in need. Work to rebuild and build a better world, for every last person in the boat, and not just now but always. Because when the floods come, we all need someone right in that boat with us, by us, and for us: to care and to help.
We’re all in the same boat.