Monday, January 4, 2016

This is How Your House Dies

I wasn't there when it came apart.

I'm told there were ten of you in the house when the tornado hit, seven taking shelter in a single downstairs bathroom. I can't imagine what that was like. I can't believe you all survived. By the time I get there, you're long gone – in a motel, probably, or maybe staying with relatives. But the pile that was your house is still there, and someone has to take it away.

So after the bulldozer knocks down what was left of your walls, our volunteer corps get to work. We descend on your house in our grungy dozens to sift and scoop and shovel, putting the salvageable things safely to one side and sorting the rest into FEMA-approved curbside piles: brick here, yard trash there, garbage seemingly everywhere. We work cheerfully, sometimes making little jokes ("Oh! I found the Cuervo. Everyone can stop looking now.") It's crass to admit it, but even as we sort through the wreckage of your life, you're still a little bit unreal to us. We are sad to see the smashed pink plastic castle and the Doc McStuffins wrapping paper.  We marvel at the unbroken hard-boiled eggs. We put the sodden yearbook carefully aside.

You stop by a little later in the day, and I'm amazed at how calm and collected you seem. You tell us how much you appreciate our work. We tell you we're sorry that we haven't been able to find your mom's wallet. And as I rip up what used to be your living room carpet, I am grateful to you.

Because here's the thing. Your house has died, and 95% of it is going straight to the landfill. The few things we manage to save for you look like a pathetic fraction of a yard-sale: just a tiny pile of random, dirty, second-hand junk. I doubt you will find much consolation there. But as we scavenging Samaritans descend on the remains of your home to pick it clean, an amazing thing is happening. A rare and special kind of life is happening.

You've seen some of it already. The bubba brigade is out chain-sawing dead trees and broken fences, while tough Texas ladies shovel debris and haul supplies in their big muddy pick-em-up trucks. It's good, hard work – the kind that brings out the best in people.

And yet we're so much more than just our most visible vanguard. Our big kids are out delivering lunches to the workers, while the smaller ones sort clothes and canned food back at the donation center. People who can't do manual labor are going from house to house, checking on residents and finding out what they need. People with limited mobility are manning phone lines and registration desks. People who are housebound are fostering lost pets, sharing news online and connecting the resources we have with the people who need them. Everyone is doing their best. Everyone is contributing something.

One fellow called our work a "ministry of presence". I'm not very church-literate, so to me that sounds sort of exotic, almost alchemical. But I love the idea that service begins with the simple act of showing up – of bundling up all your talents and limitations and gifting yourself to whatever need arises. There's an exuberance here that I've never felt anywhere else, and I think that's where it's coming from. Here, in the rubble of your old life, a tiny, temporary, utopian human world is growing – one in which everyone is valuable and important and wanted, in which everyone is contributing towards a common goal. This is the humanity that our prophets and leaders always advocate. This is way the real world should work but never, ever does.

It won't last, of course. In a matter of hours, we've skeletonized your house – swept it clean down to the foundation and moved on to the next one. And soon the work day will be over, and soon we'll have to go back to that bigger, coarser world, in which our talent and generosity have to take a back seat while we pay the bills. I hope you don't have to go back there too soon. I hope your need doesn't outlast your help.

And even though we would never have wished this on you or anyone, I hope you know that the death of your house has brought a little more life into the world – that that big wet heap of splintered wood and crumbled sheetrock has enriched everyone who touched it, and everyone who touched them in turn. That's how I know its loss was not a waste, and why we're so glad to do this with you: because your old life has already made a better world – for all of us – in which to build your new one.

Over a thousand homes and businesses were damaged or destroyed by the tornado on Dec. 26th. As of this writing, FEMA is considering declaring the area a disaster zone, and volunteers are still desperately needed. If you're local, please visit the City of Rowlett homepage to find out how you can help.