“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ ”― Fred Rogers
This past week, my hometown flooded. Hurricane Harvey crashed into the Texas Gulf Coast, and inundated Dickinson, Texas with water. I awoke Sunday morning to urgent texts from my brother, who is currently living in Korea, demanding to know what was happening with my parents. I quickly logged onto Facebook to see childhood friends posting desperate pleas for help and devastating photos of the rapidly rising water.
I finally did hear from my parents. Mom was safe at a a church retreat further inland. My brother, who was visiting my parents, was also safe at a friend’s house. And Dad, too, was safe on the second floor of their home.
Their home – my home for much of my childhood and all of my adolescence. It was a home that, despite being a few blocks from a bayou and despite weathering numerous storms, had not flooded in the decades we had lived there. That home was knee-deep in water and the rain was still coming, and high tide hadn’t hit.
From the safe distance of 2000+ miles (3500+ km), I watched as my hometown flooded. Dickinson was one of the hardest hit communities early on in Harvey’s path, and thus received much media attention. I obsessed over news reports and social media posts about the flood. I felt so helpless and powerless seeing people I love and care about losing so much and in peril of their lives. I actually felt physically ill when friends posted requests for evacuations from rooftops or desperate pleas for somebody to check on their aging parents with whom they had not had contact. By the time I saw familiar images of my youth – now underwater – flashing on international news stories, I was numb.
Hurricanes and floods. These aren’t new experiences for me. Growing up on the Gulf Coast, they were so much a part of my experience that my friends and I often played “Hurricane” – a game where we saved all of our stuffed animals from crashing waves and rising waters. I’ve lived through my share of storms. And as a pastor, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the devastation of such storms from a theological perspective. So, when faced with this disaster from afar, I turned to some of my writings from the past for comfort.
I pulled out the article I wrote after spending a summer in Nicaragua, observing reconstruction efforts after Hurricane Mitch. I pulled out the reflections written after Tropical Storm Allison when I was serving as a chaplain in a flooded hospital in the Texas Medical Center. And I pulled out the sermon I preached the Sunday after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, a sermon congregants said was one of the best I’d preached. But none of these comforted me. Reflections on God’s presence in the midst of disaster did not ease my anxiety. Contemplating the various images of water throughout the Hebrew and Christian scriptures did nothing to abate the dread swelling in my spirit.
But I did find consolation. Surprisingly, it came from the same source as my anguish. It came in my obsessing over social media. It came from the responsive actions of my hometown, in images of care and concern from my people.
– There is the woman, two classes behind me in school (and Sunday School), who was out in her inflatable kayak for days getting people out of their homes (her boat could get places where bigger boats could not). Oh, and she had a sprained wrist through it all.
– There is the woman, whose mom drove me to school every day of sophomore year, who coordinated boats up and down various streets of Dickinson. The U.S. Coast Guard was asking her where to go!
– There is the man, who was a dishwasher at the seafood restaurant where I bussed tables when I was 15, who was out on his boat, rescuing people from rooftops and second floor windows.
– There is the woman, from my 8th-grade soccer team (we were Bay Area Champions!), who now lives in Sweden, who was coordinating rescue efforts via social media, matching evacuation requests with boats available.
– There is my cousin, who closed his restaurant to the public but still worked with the employees (those able to come in) to make meals for shelters and first responders.
– And there is my dad, who opened his home to neighbours from single-story homes, providing shelter to multiple dogs, grown-ups, and kids, including a two-week-old baby.
– The list goes on…
The above quote from Mr. Rogers has long been meaningful for me. I’ve quoted it in papers and sermons. And “looking for helpers” has often been a solace for me in the face disasters and devastations. But this time, when disaster struck home, when I looked for helpers in response to the flooding in Dickinson, I didn’t see anonymous heroes. Instead, I saw people I have known for decades. I saw lifelong friends. I could not have been more comforted or proud.
A few days ago, Susan Cook, the kid sister of my high school friend / choir rival Diane, took this photo of the flooded sanctuary of Faith Lutheran Church in Dickinson. It’s striking, the image of Jesus reflected in the flood waters. What’s more striking for me is the image of Jesus reflected in the faces of Dickinson – helpers, heroes, volunteers, victims, survivors, supporters, family, and friends.
Rev. Rachel Frey