Moments spent in God's kingdom

1/18/2006

Some imprints on one’s life are indelible. Two indelible imprints on my life are the Civil rights movement of the 1960s and my service as an Army chaplain in Vietnam. Many experiences deemed by me as very crucial in times of crisis, are seeing those who offered their lives for causes larger and nobler than themselves.

Hurricanes Katrina and Rita created severe stress from loss of life, destruction of property and life changing circumstances equal to or greater than the civil rights movement and Vietnam’s impact on America. Just as those movements gave rise to heroic moments by common, everyday people who rose to the occasion, the same became reality throughout the hurricane crisis. Our late President John F. Kennedy was correct in saying, “Leaders are born in times of crisis.”  If Medals of Honor were appropriate for citizens, re-supplies of the medal would have to be ordered.

There are inexhaustible discussions of neighbors the breath and width of the Gulf Coast leaving the comfort and safety of their spared homes or churches to survey damage and assist recovery for their communities.

In particular, our Spiritual and Emotional Task Force of the Mississippi Conference of The United Methodist Church learned many such stories. We heard stories of United Methodist pastors who began immediately collecting food, clothing, gasoline and transportation for dialysis patients and providing shelter. The same is true for pastors, priests, rabbis and perhaps imams of other religious orders. Their religious centers became the conduit for coordination and distribution centers for local, state and national emergency responses. They ignored sleep, bathing, needs of their own families and personal health challenges to maximize support for their communities.

We know of laity who walked from home to home in chest deep, swirling waters looking for bodies and hopefully survivors before the rescue teams arrived. I know of one husband, father and neighbor, who after a week of exhaustive rescue and recovery work, finally broke down in tears and his wife exclaimed, “Thank God! He finally is able to let it come out!!”

To have seen teams from all over our nation come to the South as volunteers is reminiscent of volunteers of another era who came south for “God and country.” And now a new south, reeling from a natural disaster, welcomed its northern, eastern and western neighbors by having visionaries who turned churches into hotels and restaurants with high-level management of work teams employing whatever skills available to resurrect the disaster zone.

Thousands of volunteers did not question the responsibility of insurance companies, FEMA or the Red Cross but initiated cutting up fallen trees, picking up debris, gutting and restoring homes and churches, cooking meals, counseling or making themselves available for whatever. The popular song Green Beret during Vietnam describes no greater spirit than the volunteers of our “nation’s best” who gave their all in support of grieving, shocked, homeless, uprooted Americans.

The lesson for me in all of this is to remind ourselves that when the need arises, people as human creatures, are some of the nicest folk ever created on God’s earth. Just like Vietnam, other wars and disasters, in the heat of the moment, little things like race, creed and color lose their significance. A member of one of the churches we visited said, “Sonny, before Hurricane Katrina, we were a dead church. I really hate to see the people leave because I don’t want us to go back the way we were. Katrina gave us a mission.”

May God not be forced to see us in disaster before we can eternally experience the beauty of neighbors exemplifying what it is to truly be a neighbor. Even in hurricane Wilma along the East coast or tsunamis in another part of the world, leaders are born in times of crisis.

In the story of the Good Samaritan, Jesus clearly defines neighbor as usually being someone different from me. The kingdom of God may be defined as a place where “neighborness” reigns.

I thank God for the opportunity to experience a minuscule moment of the kingdom of God. The “now and not yet” realized eschatology of theologian C.H. Dodd is seen in the lives of Americans giving and receiving all along the destructive paths of Katrina and Rita. Let us not wait for another disaster to experience the beautiful folk we already are.

Davis is chair of the Spiritual and Emotional Task Force for the Mississippi Conference.