“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn and you will not be condemned. Give and it will be given to you.” Jesus Christ
“Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” Mr. Rogers
“I had to tell 300 people that we were out of blankets. If you could have seen the look in their eyes…” My friend, Paige Pecore, texted me these sobering words as those displaced by the Hurricane Harvey floods in Houston began streaming into an overflowing makeshift shelter at the Convention Center. She and her husband, Doug, like so many Houstonians, were volunteering. Many of the folks showing up had nothing but the wet clothes on their backs. Although I had already donated to Episcopal Relief and Development and to the Red Cross, knowing that these organizations do good work, I found myself asking, “What can I do?” If you find yourself asking that question in a crisis, know that you are likely not far from the heart of God.
Those desperately-needed blankets immediately became a powerful symbol guiding my own response to the devastation. A blanket is a tangible expression of concern; something that can provide warmth, protection, and even a small sense of security for folks who have lost everything. Even though my church and a local construction company were already meeting behind-the-scenes to begin to coordinate a more massive and sustained relief effort, the blankets became my focus. My initial plan was to raid the local stores, rent a truck, and meet my friend, Doug, halfway. The roads were closed. Then I contacted a friend who has a plane. The airports were closed. Then I went online to see if the god of commerce, amazon.com, could help. Only a moron would even begin to imagine that if I ordered blankets on Amazon, they’d deliver them the next day to the Convention Center. Apparently, fools like me are born more often than you think! I even contacted the Cajun Navy, with visions of sailing down the I-10, stirring a pot of gumbo while sipping an Abita Amber, entering downtown Houston through Buffalo Bayou, then hoisting the blankets overboard and into the shelter. The Cajun Navy guy wished me well, and told me to contact the Cajun Submarine fleet, headed by Commander Al E. Gator. I’m still searching the swamp! Undeterred, I pressed on.
Then, a miracle happened. My friend and fellow priest, Scott Painter, who lives in the heart of Houston, happened to maneuver flooded streets and arrive at Costco just as it miraculously reopened. He texted photos of my blanket options and asked “How many do you want?” I ordered 100, sent him a check for $2,000, and bright and early the next morning, he delivered them to the new shelter opening at NRG Stadium, where 10,000 people were expected by the end of the day! Take that, Admiral Gator!
In the grand scheme of relief efforts, in a swampy region spread out over a vast territory with 6 million inhabitants, 100 blankets delivered to one shelter probably won’t make much of a difference. But for the 100 people at the shelter who end up with one, it might make some difference. And you and I can each make some difference. Together, we can make a big difference.
In every crisis, you will discover that there will be folks who will sit back and do nothing, thinking their efforts won’t make much difference. Worse, there will be others who will expend precious energy criticizing others. Dear humans: NEWSFLASH! In a crisis–criticism and condemnation, second-guessing and judging–not helpful in the least. In fact, they can discourage those who are actually doing good to keep doing good. If you have enough time and energy to second-guess elected officials because of their decisions, criticize public figures because you are not satisfied with their efforts, or castigate the work of relief organizations because of their imperfections, you are part of the problem and not part of the solution. Piling on wet blankets of negativity will not help one single person whose life has been disrupted by a flood.
I have a good friend who is a single mom with two kids. They live simply in an apartment. She works for the Red Cross and she is passionately committed to her work and to improving every day. She works overtime every week, with pay that is not competitive. During many crises she is away from her own children late into the night as she provides comfort and support for others. I watched in disbelief as she posted ways to help during Hurricane Harvey on social media, only to be barraged by insults and complaints. One man, who looks like he hasn’t missed too many meals, posted photos of chicken nuggets that he claimed were Red Cross meals during a recent flood. Turned out, snacks are provided as soon as possible, even before the Red Cross caterers arrive. I watched my friend expend her valuable and positive energy addressing very patiently and thoughtfully Mr. Nugget’s criticisms. How much more helpful it would have been had my friend been able to focus on what really matters – helping people. And just think if Mr. Nugget had used his energy to get trained as a volunteer, or to purchase food or blankets. Or if he’d just shut up. The world would be a much better place.
Jesus said it best: Do not judge or condemn. Do not criticize or second-guess. Now is definitely not the time. Give and it will always be given back to you. Look for the helpers. Be one, too. It’s our only hope.