Loving Thy Neighbor When Disaster Strikes
Throughout the weekend, I’ve been watching news reports of the unprecedented and catastrophic flooding being caused in Southeastern Texas by Hurricane Harvey and the literal feet of rain that it is dumping in the area. I’ve seen the social media posts of folks unable to get through the 911 system asking for help. I’ve watched updates about Urban Search and Rescue teams from around the country being mobilized to go down and begin the search for survivors and those less fortunate, and heard of the various disaster organizations that are ramping up to aid in what will unfortunately be a long and intense recovery process.
And honestly, it’s a bit overwhelming.
For most of my life, I’ve had a sense that God is calling me to help people. I did all sorts of volunteer work in my church and community growing up, and I can remember as early as middle school the desire to want to have a steady volunteer gig. My senior year of high school, I drove 45 minutes one way several times a month to be part of a volunteer search and rescue team. The evening after my first day of college classes, I walked a mile and a half to attend a meeting to join a different local search and rescue team. I carried on that tradition of volunteering in emergency services with a volunteer fire department during seminary, and another fire department now that I’ve started my first call as a pastor.
I share all of this because when I see disaster and destruction in the world, that desire to help starts churning in my heart. I get restless and want to be able to contribute. My wife can tell you just how squirmy and high-strung I can get when I don’t have an outlet to help.
And so when I see what’s going on in Texas, even though it’s a somewhat distant land which I’ve travelled to only once in my life, I want to find some way to help. And I know I’m not alone in that, I’ve already seen various friends and acquaintances trying to pull together various collections for our neighbors in the South.
And that’s what I wanted to spend a few minutes talking about today…
But first, let’s read a hopefully familiar piece of scripture:
Jesus said, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” -Luke 10:30-37
Most folks are familiar with the story of the “Good Samaritan.” It informs our Christian ethic of helping our neighbors, AND it’s not uncommon to hear reference to “Good Samaritans” outside of religious life as well.
But what made the Samaritan so helpful? What is it about the Samaritan’s behavior that Jesus encourages us to emulate it?
The Samaritan doesn’t try to coordinate help from afar, but rather gets right down in the ditch with the injured man. He can see exactly what he needs, and he does what he can. And once he’s done as much as he can in the field, he takes him to town, sets him up in a hotel and tells the innkeeper to take care of whatever he needs. Even though the Samaritan can only stay and help for a short while, he makes sure that the long-term needs of the man beset by robbers are taken care of.
So what does all of this mean?
In the days and weeks ahead, you’re probably going to have a burning desire to find a way to help the folks most affected by Hurricane Harvey. And you’re probably going to see various appeals asking for donations of all sorts to help the victims. And even if the urge to help becomes so great that you can’t sit still, I’d like you to think of the Good Samaritan.
The Good Samaritan got right into the thick of things in the ditch to help the man in need. Now some of you, through various organizations, may have the opportunity to go down to Houston and Southeastern Texas to help directly, which is highly commendable, but hardly an option for everyone.
AND SO, the important bit is that if you want to help, keep the organizations that ARE in the thick of things in mind… Those who are “in the ditch” have the best idea of what’s needed most. Don’t just start collecting clothes or bottled water assuming that some way or another you will get it to people who need it. There are very specific logistical concerns and supply chains involved in getting supplies to disaster victims. A truckload of clothes might help someone, but not if it makes it more difficult for a truckload of food to be delivered. Pick an organization you trust, and find out what is most helpful for them.
And don’t be offended if the answer is cash. Many of these organizations have huge supply networks already in place, and the same $5 you’d spend on a case of bottled water could possibly be used to buy a whole pallet of water from a bulk supplier. AND, the other cool and important thing is that a lot of major disaster organizations talk to one another; they ensure that all of the bases are being covered, so that they’re not all duplicating one service while leaving folks desperately in need for another. Let the folks who are closest to those in need dictate what is collected. That’s important point number one that we can pull out of the Good Samaritan story for today.
Important point number two comes in the second piece of the story, the part where the Samaritan takes the man to town, gets him checked into an inn, and asks the innkeeper to keep a tally of any costs for him to pay back later. He doesn’t just take care of the immediate needs, but goes the extra mile to make sure that the injured man is taken care of and on the road to recovery. Believe me when I tell you that recovering from historic flooding like this is not something that can be accomplished in days. It will take months, and honestly years for some of these folks to feel like they’re back on their feet again.
Unfortunately, some of the best known disaster response agencies tend to be focused on more immediate needs. They’ll help folks with food, water, and shelter in the coming weeks, but they’re just not equipped to help people resettle or rebuild in the long term. Their mission is noble, but can only go so far. Meanwhile, if we truly want to be like the Good Samaritan, we need to think about the big picture, and think about what these folks need not just now and next week, but also next month and next year. And so, important point number two? Keep an eye on the big picture and support folks who have a plan for long-term aid.
I know folks are itching to help. Believe me, I am too. But if we follow the model of the Good Samaritan, and support the folks who are doing the work on the ground, it will be better for all of us.
I’m biased, but I think a lot of the church-based organizations really embody both of the points I tried to make above. Folks like Lutheran Disaster Response, Catholic Charities, Mennonite Disaster Service, and the United Methodist Committee on Relief; they have folks on the ground who are partnering with local agencies and working to identify what needs aren’t being met. AND they’re in it for the long-haul. One of my favorite examples comes from some severe flooding last summer in a county to the south of me. Catholic Charities arranged to get water heaters at cost from an appliance company. Hundreds of people had flooded basements, they had lost major appliances like clothes washers and dryers, but especially their WATER HEATERS. People had plenty of clothes and bottled water and bleach and everything you could possibly think of, but they didn’t have water heaters, so they couldn’t shower, or wash up, and a water heater is a huge expense to have to cover out of pocket, but it goes a long way in helping to make a home habitable again. They had worked with folks on the ground to identify a need that wasn’t being met, and used their (considerable) resources to fill that gap.
That’s the kind of stuff that people who do this for a living are capable of. But they need our help.
So, when you’re watching the news tonight and you’re feeling that itch to help, think about the Good Samaritan, and consider how you can use your resources to do the most good for our neighbors in Texas. Give cash to organizations like the American Red Cross who are on the ground sheltering and feeding people as we speak, but also look into other organizations that will be helping folks to rebuild long into the future and throw some support their way too.
Personally, I’ll be putting my support behind Lutheran Disaster Response through my own denomination, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. And because mission support from Lutheran congregations cover their administrative overhead costs, 100% of donations designated for helping hurricane victims will go to that cause. Check it out here: ELCA – Hurricane Harvey Response.
And if you’re still really intent on donating clothes or water or bleach, etc. Please take a moment to read this wonderful NPR article from a few years ago. I guarantee it will give you a new perspective on how disaster relief works, and will hopefully persuade you to find an organization you trust to support financially. Check it out here: Thanks, But No Thanks: When Post-Disaster Donations Overwhelm