As you may have noticed, I am not a man of action. I am not one to decide the course of a certain event or activity and carry it to fruition. I’m more of a “stay back and see what happens” kind of guy. The reason for this is simple. I always consider myself the least qualified and wonder what skill set I bring.
I was reminded of this on Friday when Hurricane Barry hit Louisiana. My mind instantly went back to October 22nd, 2012. That’s the day Hurricane Sandy formed and wreaked havoc over the Atlantic Coast. I also remember it because it was my first year teaching science to students with intellectual disabilities at Hamilton. Every day our class watched CNN Student News, a daily program designed to break down the complex news stories of the day into concepts that middle-school-age child could understand. We followed the stories of the hurricane, incorporating the statistics into our lessons. We followed the awesome power and destruction. We tracked the efforts of the Red Cross and other relief organizations in the area.
On Sunday, November 4th, one of our pastors read a letter to the congregation from another Lutheran congregation in Far Rockaway, New York. They were overwhelmed with requests for humanitarian relief and were begging for our help, specifically in the form of bottled water, cleaning supplies, non-perishable food and other items necessary to restore the semblance of a normal life. We were given a week to secure the items and return the next Saturday to load a truck that would take our donations to New York.
My wife and I bought a couple of cases of water, a mop and bucket, and a 6 pack of Mac & Cheese (Not Kraft but some off-brand). The plan was to drop it off Saturday morning and return to our life.
“If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans!” Woody Allen.
We arrived with our stuff sometime after lunch, astonished by the generosity of our congregation. The truck was being loaded by two guys, slowly moving the contents from the hallway to an 18 foot Penske moving truck. After a few minutes of watching them (and them watching me watching them), I grabbed some stuff and proceeded to help them load the van. During those trips up and down the ramp, I started asking questions about the trip.
It was then when I asked probably the dumbest question of my life. “Do you have enough guys going?”
I got the answer, walked off the back of the truck and found my wife helping out and the end of the hallway.
“You know,” I started, “Sometimes the Holy Spirit is very annoying!”
“Why?” she asked in that long drawn out syllable that indicates that I should choose my words carefully or she will increase my medication.
“I think I’m going to New York!” I looked at her, hoping she would give me a laundry list of “Why this is a stupid idea!”, but she just said OK. She then told her mother, who I was sure would raise an objection, but she OK’d it as well.
We left Monday Morning November 12th, 2012. All the time, I kept questioning. “Why me?,” I wanted to know. Did God really think that a 47-year-old diabetic with Cerebral Palsy was his best option? What skill set could I bring? I had just finished my Master’s Degree in Reading, how much use would something like that be there!
We got to New York and every step of the way I questioned my involvement. I felt like I was just taking up space and it seemed like we weren’t doing anything. Every time we drove somewhere to deliver supplies, we were told that they had more than enough and had no more room for our things. Our clothing was turned away because it might have bed bugs.
We stayed at a golf course because there was no room at the inn. We got a late start the first morning because a dead body was found less than 100 yards where we parked our truck the night before. The lunch that we were supposed to serve at had too many volunteers, so we were turned away. This went on for days. We did some short term stuff here and there, but nothing that I feel like I was called to do. Every night I went to bed asking God why I was here.
The last day we were due to return the truck at the rental shop and ride home in a van with the other volunteers from our church. The problem was that our truck was still half full and it seemed nobody wanted our stuff. We then decided that we were just going to drive down some random street, open the doors and unload the stuff to a neighborhood directly. We pulled up and word quickly spread. We got rid of a lot, but still had some left. One of the people on the block told us of his brother’s neighborhood, that was really hit hard. We got directions and then headed off.
When we arrived, we were blown away. The rest of New York that we had been seeing was suffering due to lack of services that had been temporarily suspended due to the storm. This neighborhood was actually hit directly from the hurricane.
Every tree was down, including traffic lights and street signs. Not one single roof was intact and most windows were still boarded up. Although we were four blocks away from the Atlantic ocean, the roads were replaced by a beach. Seashells littered the sidewalk and a small boat was still parked in the middle of the street. This neighborhood was also quiet. The other places had people in the streets constantly as if they did not trust their houses anymore. But here, there was a quiet, calm and uneasy at the same time.
We began knocking on doors, asking people if they could use those supplies we still had. Common sense had given way to compassion as we separated into teams of two and then just going solo.
I approached a small brownstone that looked pretty much intact. I noticed signs of life coming from in the house as well a a small gasoline generator sitting by the side of the house.
I knocked on the door and a large man in a tank top and cut off shorts threw open the door mid knock. His face was full of sweat and eyes were red, probably from lack of sleep. He stared at me and I stared back until I realized I had knocked on his door, meaning I should probably initiate the conversation.
I explained that I had some supplies and was wondering if the man or his household could use some help. The offer of water was not needed because the water had just been turned on the day before. I offered him some food (Mac N’ Cheese) but he also turned that down, due to the fact that he had no power for the stove or microwave yet.
“Isn’t that your generator?” I said pointing to the device in his driveway.
“I guess so,” he answered, “FEMA dropped it off a couple of days ago..” he let that sentence trail off.
“Did you run out of gas?”
“No, plenty of gas. Just haven’t hooked it up yet.”
After a few more questions, I discovered that FEMA had dropped off the generator when he was standing in line four miles away to get dry blankets for his children. When he returned, all he saw was the generator and an instruction manual.
The man’s shoulders sagged down as he handed me the manual. With tears in his eyes, he simply said to me, ”I can’t read.”
I took the manual and we went outside. The man and I talked about the Lord as we set about our task. I learned his family and he mine. We shared our faith and I commended him on his bravery. He thanked me for my selflessness. Thirty-five minutes later, the house had power. Just as the lights came on, my group found me, concerned that I had been out of their sight for so long.
We left for Wisconsin the next day. I still think about that man and how that annoying little spirit sent me all the way across the country to turn on a generator. As far as I can figure, that was my whole purpose for being there. One interaction, one kind word.
What is he calling you to do? The Bible is overflowing with men and women who felt they had nothing useful to offer when God tapped them on the shoulder. Do want to know the scariest thing to pray for? Pray that God uses you to enrich another’s life.