After a few weeks of scrambling and recruiting, I landed in the city of San Juan with a retired electrical engineer and an architect from our local community. We were joined there by three young adults from Costa Rica including a civil engineer, architect, and teacher.
Over the next five days, we were escorted around the island to various churches and pastors' homes where we assessed damage done by the recent hurricanes, Maria and Irma. Our mandate was to assemble a list of recommendations for future teams to help restore the damaged facilities and support the communities in the aftermath of these powerful storms.
Though our hands were full of notes, crowbars, and flashlights we knew, as anyone should know, the ultimate focus was on the comfort, empathy, and compassion only a human can bring. The loss of bricks and mortar were secondary to the experiences of fear, loss, and discouragement after the one-two punch of these natural disasters.
In addition to assessing structural integrity in the various affected communities, we also spent time interviewing community members to gain a better understanding of the hurt of those who survived and suffered. Electrical outages, toxic water, spotty medical care, high prices and lack of needed resources all contributed to a seesaw of emotions teetering between hope and discouragement.
In the Phases of Disaster Response posted here, you can see how after a sudden impact (i.e. disaster) comes the heroic phase. In this phase people come together synergistically to respond to the immediate needs as a result of the disaster. During this time people may even have a sense of victory over the trauma.
This is quickly replaced by discouragement/disillusionment phase, which take place around the same time the event disappears from the “news cycle.” Our Puerto Rican friends were clearly at this stage with no electricity, bad water, extensive damage and little hope of cange anytime in the near future.
Yet, with the power found through faith in God and the love of the church community, many people with whom we connected displayed great hope. They found a calming presence through their faith in God, a community in their neighbors and church family, and connection to people near and far who were sending supportive prayers, words of encouragement, generators, water filters and gift cards to major stores. I found their God-given joy to be strength to them and inspiring to me.
Little did I know that two weeks later I would be living in the personal discouragement/hope mix having experienced our own disaster back home in California.
On Monday night, December 4, the Thomas fire sparked near the city of Ventura, California traveling 25 miles in three days to begin threatening our community. In these days, as my wife and I remain on voluntary evacuation along with thousands more, we dwell in the tension of disillusionment, anxiety, hope, and trust. As two people who have given their lives to care for others, we are “wounded healers” (Henri Nouwen).
As people who care for others in the faith community, may we find ourselves standing at the intersection where hope and discouragement meet. May our comforting presence and waving hand point people to deeper community and together may we walk forward as we, collectively, enter a wiser living phase where we find our trust in God and treasure the most important gifts He has given us.
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