March 27, 2019 - Cindy Smist
Did you ever notice how God has a way of changing our plans? In July of 2017, we were on our second day of mucking out flooded basements in Central New York State, when our afternoon job was abruptly canceled. I was working as part of a United Methodist Committee on Relief’s Early Response Team (ERT), a group of trained volunteers who seek to help victims recover after a disaster. I could not have imagined how God was going to turn the tables on me during this mission through one of the victims we served.
A flash flood had occurred several days before our arrival, destroying seventeen homes and leaving 247 with major damage. Surprisingly, our top priority in disaster recovery is not to clean up but to listen to victims’ stories, to be a caring Christian presence. I had secretly dreaded viewing the flood devastation. Lives were in turmoil, and I could not escape the shock, sadness, and despair at the sight of the saturated homes. Somehow, though, I needed to suppress my feelings and get focused on bringing the hope of Christ to those we would meet.
Our team of ten had spent the morning cleaning a flooded basement for a single woman who was still unable to make decisions, sitting with no utilities in her damp home. My clothes were crusty from dried mud splatters that had sprayed up as I and others had slogged through the several inches of wet muck in her basement. Some of us scraped mud off the uneven floor and into five-gallon buckets. Others struggled to carry the half-full buckets to the stairs. Relief met us there in the form of a hand from above, which lifted the buckets from us and sloshed them into a waiting wheelbarrow. The wheelbarrow was pushed to the street and dumped onto an oozing pile. As our work there came to an end, many of us, as well as some Red Cross workers, encouraged the woman to think about her future. We had done all we could for her.
After eating lunch, then having our afternoon job canceled, we drove to the Red Cross command center for new instructions. I was intrigued by a flood victim I met there named Sam, who was at the Red Cross working to help others even though his own home was destroyed. He did not present as a typical disaster victim. As he described the flood, he optimistically told me of his future plans to return home and live there. He was soft-spoken and sincere. He did not express anxiety but seemed content. With the approval of the Red Cross, our team decided to help Sam finish his cleanup. He gave us his address and confidently said to go and do whatever we thought was best. “Use your own judgment,” he said. “There is a dumpster in the street.”
When we arrived at Sam’s home, the high water marks we saw spoke of the disaster’s magnitude. We began lugging more water-soaked items to the dumpster, leaving only a few piles of his remaining belongings strewn about the yard. Eventually, Sam returned home, and as he watched us work, I felt an odd sense of encouragement that he was silently rooting for us as much as we were rooting for him.
Throughout the afternoon, other team members and I took turns sharing in the listening process, as Sam told more and more details about the flood. Yet, when Sam told his story, he again did not express any worries for himself or his future. His only concern was for our team, as he continually thanked us and asked what he could do for us. He bolstered our spirits and, strangely, I felt that my suppressed feelings of despair about the disaster were being ministered to by Sam, that things here were going to be okay for him and the others. Then he began telling me about his faith, and before I knew it, we were in a deep discussion about God and Christianity. God had clearly engineered this disaster for good in so many ways.
I was supposed to be the one who gave hope, who did the blessing and serving. But Sam was different. What I received from his gracious and caring presence brought me to a new understanding of God’s work in the disaster ministries. And what an opportunity we were given to share our message about Jesus Christ!
Written by Cindy Smist