Friends, we at the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd will no longer collect or accept goods for disaster relief…and I want to tell you why.
On Saturday, August 27, 2005, I loaded my wife and our infant son into the family Honda, our daughter still a glimmer in her mother’s eye. I kissed them both, and I waved as they pulled out of our Lafayette, Louisiana, driveway, on their way to shelter with our parents in Shreveport, some 200 miles to the northwest.
Worship the next morning in Acadiana felt as uneasy and strange as the turquoise-green tint of its sky. While we made our Communion, the Mayor of New Orleans declared a mandatory evacuation, instructing anyone who planned to stay in the Crescent City to write in Sharpie their name and Social-Security number on their forearm. That night I slept under the desk in my office – about thirty miles from the coast – and waited.
The outer bands of Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana in the wee hours, and the eye of the storm made landfall between New Orleans and Biloxi at mid-morning on Monday. All that day looked an unending dusk, with spits and squalls unlike anything that I had seen before or have seen since. By Tuesday, when we in Lafayette began to assess the damage to our own homes and businesses, city and parish officials readied the Cajun Dome as a “mega” shelter, and, over the course of the next fifty-eight days, more than 18,000 evacuees would make their home right there in the convention center on Johnston Street.
As fortune would have it, I was long-scheduled to be formally “instituted” as the Rector of Saint Barnabas Episcopal Church on that Thursday (September 2), and my friend, Barkley Thompson, had been equally-long committed to preach the event. While others were fleeing South Louisiana, he was arriving from Memphis, Tennessee, where he was serving as the priest in charge of a re-start congregation. With the bishop and Barkley onboard, we continued with the evening worship service as planned – I think as much to lay eyes on one another as anything – but we boxed everything that had been prepared for the reception, and, instead of dining in our decked-out Parish Hall, we loaded that same Honda and fed storm survivors from its tailgate: petits fours, gumbo, green-bean casserole, pimento cheese, and all the rest.
I don’t know what such synchronicities speak, but Barkley is now the Dean of our Cathedral in Houston, leading relief efforts in the city he serves, and our three-year lectionary’s assigned readings for that following Sunday in 2005 are the same appointed for this morning. Thinking, then, of Katrina and Rita, Harvey and Irma, the Gospel’s last line lingers for me: “For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”(i) While brothers and sisters shelter in peril in this very hour; where friends and neighbors confront unexpected homelessness, unemployment, and loss; and where all of us bear witness to these sufferings; we pray for God’s presence.
For months, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita drafted every day’s agenda for me, and that experience fundamentally reshaped me as a person and as a priest. In our relief work, I believe we at Saint Barnabas did a lot of good, though we made our share of mistakes. Among our efforts, we collected things, and, among the things we collected, we solicited the parish and community for packages of new undergarments. Now, we were really, really specific in the appeal, as per the instructions we received from the local United Way: we need this size, and we need that size, and the package must be unopened, and so forth. Even so, I have a vivid memory of leaving my office and finding a carton on a nearby counter, to which someone had hastily taped a piece of scratch paper announcing, “Katrina Underwear.” Cautiously, I opened the box and found inside a mound of lightly-used underpants…more than half of which were thongs. I said to myself then what I have said many times since: “Man, people are something else.”
While I share this story with its dark humor intended, communities have truly suffered for this American impulse to donate their stuff in response to disaster and tragedy. Juanita Rilling, the former director of the Center for International Disaster Information in Washington, D.C, describes, “Generally, after a disaster, people with loving intentions donate things that cannot be used in a disaster response, and, in fact, may actually be harmful…And they have no idea that they’re doing it.”(ii) Of this response, Scott Simon of NPR notes, “Humanitarian workers call the crush of useless – often incomprehensible – contributions, ‘the second disaster.’”(iii)
The examples of such donations are outrageous: winter coats and high-heeled shoes clogging the runway in Honduras after the 1998 summer hurricane, Mitch…a half-mile of unusable, rotting clothing being doused with gasoline and set ablaze on the beaches of Indonesia following the 2004 tsunami. Rilling supposes, “The thinking is that these people have lost everything, so they must need everything…so people send everything…People have donated prom gowns and wigs and tiger costumes and pumpkins and frostbite cream to Rwanda, and used teabags, ‘because you can always get another cup of tea’” from one of those.(iv)
The second-disaster stories from Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, may be the most tender and terrible. Former city official, Chris Kelsey, recounts that the village had to rent warehouse space to store the teddy bears received…67,000 of them. Kelsey reflects, “There were also thousands of boxes of school supplies, and thousands of boxes of toys, bicycles, sleds, clothes…I think a lot of the stuff…was more for the people that sent it, than it was for [us] in Newtown.” Hear that again: I think a lot of the stuff…was more for the people that sent it, than it was for [us] in Newtown.(v)
During their receipt of these contributions and memorials, Newtown officials contacted Texas A&M anthropology professor, Dr. Sylvia Grider (and while she taught at A&M, Dr. Grider graduated from UT, so remains a credible source no matter one’s local allegiances!). Dr. Grider gained notoriety for her work with the “spontaneous shrine” that developed at the scene of the 1999 Aggie Bonfire collapse. Notably for us, she is a member of Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Bryan, and she was gracious enough to receive my request for an interview and phone conversation about how the devotion of public shrines might be related to our impulse to donate. Dr. Grider offers, “We are a culture of consumers[, and] as I’m sure you know, Americans have more ‘stuff’ than any other current society[, just as] the phenomenon of ‘hoarding’ is peculiarly American.”(vi) Therefore, that we would make ourselves feel better by shopping should not surprise us.
As we visited, Dr. Grider described the protocol she and her department developed to catalogue the memorabilia – from candles and photographs, to letters and poems – left at the A&M bonfire. I found moving the care and thoughtfulness she and her team devoted to these materials. She suggests, “I do maintain that the artifacts people bring to a shrine site take on a special, numinous quality…used clothing hauled to the relief shelters in Houston[? Perhaps] not so much. But I do think that both – the stuff at shrines and the stuff at refugee shelters – are manifestations of a deep-felt need by donors to be part of something bigger than oneself”(vii) …[both are] manifestations of a deep-felt need by donors to be part of something bigger than [themselves.]. Dr. Grider then confirms the Newtown official’s observation: “…the impulse [to donate] may be more beneficial to the donor than the recipient.”(viii)
After Hurricane Harvey, we at Good Shepherd quickly mobilized three “Task Forces,” each intended to focus on a different need: one for serving locations outside of Austin; one for volunteering locally; and one for collecting goods. With “lightly-used” clothing still in my memory, we set clear expectations for our appeals: we would focus our collections on a single, very specific need, and we would collect for only a defined period of time. With the best of intentions, the Task Force began to discuss good ideas – clever, warm-hearted ideas – of what we thought could be useful and what others reported as needed.(ix)
Then, last weekend, one member of our group visited Port Aransas to check on his property, and stopped at Trinity by the Sea Episcopal Church. He found that parish had already received so many donated articles, that they were at work pitching tents on the church lawn in order to provide cover for it all. “The last thing they need is more stuff,” he wisely wrote to us.
Recognizing our powerful need for action when feeling overwhelmed by surrounding events, we initially sought to make room for that well-intended ritual of driving to CVS or HEB; buying some thing; and dropping those cleaning supplies, or toothbrushes, or bottles of water by the church for a blessing. I suspect we’ve all done it, and we’ve all felt good about it. Our Task Force realized that this devotion likely served the donor more than those to whom we would give the goods, and while we grieved its inefficiency, we accepted the ambivalent purpose as a pastoral accommodation for our own community. However, we underestimated the encumbrance these goods might impose upon those we sought to help, from the gasoline spent driving to buy and deliver the stuff, to the time lost from more constructive endeavors, to the burden we ask of the suffering to feign thanks in order to satisfy our own need to be needed. Once the potential consequences of our collections became clearer, we weened ourselves from the custom with yesterday’s strategic call for diapers at The Hill’s Second Saturday Sale.(x)
For a good, long while, I expect that will be our last disaster-relief collection.
This morning’s Gospel appointment challenges us to be a community willing to tell the truth to one another, and we have the strength to tell that truth because we believe the presence of Christ makes our hearts durable enough to bear honesty spoken in love. Therefore, we will now invite those smart and kind souls of the Collections Task Force into the work of the remaining two groups, further focusing our hurricane response on volunteerism and financial support, and we will continue stewarding our human and financial resources with constancy, and not urgency. Our ministries of relief and recovery simply cannot be about us, and we will take care to ensure that our need to feel productive will not preside.
Rather than blessing the ineffective rituals of our consumer culture, we will seek to change the rituals and shift the culture, blessing instead “that deep-felt need to be part of something larger than ourselves!” When we feel overwhelmed in the midst of disaster and tragedy and grief, we will reach for one another, rather than for our credit cards, for community is the site of Christ’s presence: where two or three or four thousand of us at Good Shepherd gather in the name of God, we will be blessed by the presence of the same, accomplishing the good our hearts intend and, ultimately, our world wants.
In the name of God,