Eyewitnesses to suffering
"They wandered in the wilderness in a desolate way, they found no city to dwell in. Hungry and thirsty, their soul fainted in them, then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble, and He delivered them out of their distresses. And He led them forth by the right way, that they might go to a city for a dwelling place." Psalm 107:4-7
By BISHOP ROBERT E. HAYES JR.
My article today is the most difficult one I've written since I've been your bishop. It comes at the end of a heartbreaking week, when all of us have been eyewitnesses to the greatest natural disaster to ever hit the United States.
All around me are the constant sights and sounds and reminders of people who have lost everything. As I try to comprehend the scope of this tragedy that has taken place in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, I soon realize there is no way we can really understand what the people in those places are going through.
Most of us cannot imagine how it would feel to wake up one morning owning nothing but the clothes on our back. There is no way for us to know the hopelessness and helplessness of having no food for ourselves or our children, no money, no home, and no transportation to get out of that situation. Thousands have lost loved ones, and most will never be able to return to anything that resembles normal lives.
When we view this kind of suffering, we see it from the comfort of our living rooms, or we read it from the headlines of the morning paper over our cup of coffee. In many ways, we are removed from it, and from a safe distance we try to do what we can.
Little do we realize that there is no such thing as a safe distance. Sooner or later, we will understand their plight is ours, simply because God has ordained that we are all brothers and sisters, bound together in this huge "bundle" we call life, and how we respond in this moment of suffering will say a lot about who we are and whose we are.
Let me share with you today how God brought this tragedy to my doorstep, and how it has given me a new resolve to help those who cannot help themselves.
A most unusual Sunday
Last weekend, my wife and I left Oklahoma City to attend a revival in Marshall, Texas. Eighteen months ago, I had been invited by the First United Methodist Church of Marshall to preach from that historic pulpit. The city itself is the birthplace of my father and grandfather, and it holds special significance in my life.
We arrived late Saturday night, just in time to see the evening news. I knew something was wrong when I pulled up to the hotel, because the parking lot was filled with people from Louisiana looking for lodging.
The clerk at the front desk said, "Sir, if you don't have a reservation I need to inform you that we have no room." We had made reservations, but as I looked at the troubled faces of those people milling in the lobby, my heart went out to them.
Many of you may not know that my wife is from Lafayette, La., so we were eager to get the latest information on the hurricane churning in the Gulf of Mexico. As we settled in for the night, our greatest fears were realized when we found out the storm was headed straight for Louisiana.
Immediately, we began making telephone calls as we tried to get our relatives out of harm's way. We went to bed that night very concerned and frightened.
Midway through the night, a desperate phone call stirred us from our sleep. Our niece, a student at LSU nursing school in New Orleans, was told the place she had planned to stay during the storm was no longer available due to the increased strength of the hurricane. She literally had no place to go.
My wife and I stayed up throughout those early hours of Sunday, doing our best to get her out of New Orleans. Driving out was not an option, because traffic going both ways was stacked up for miles. All the buses were filled to capacity, and our only other option was for her to catch a plane flight, which seemed hopeless and remote.
We called anyway.
At 7 o'clock on Sunday morning, we contacted Southwest Airlines, and, much to our surprise, the airlines had one seat left on its last flight out of New Orleans. The plane left at noon, and my niece had just enough time to get there if she drove on the side streets and not the main roads. She arrived in time, and flew to Houston safely.
I need to pause here and simply say God worked that out. How often do we come up against impossible situations, "knowing" there is no way we will ever get out of our dilemma?
And when we are "delivered," as we were THAT Sunday, you know without a doubt that God was involved.
I share that observation with you because for the next two days I experienced the hand of God moving in a mighty way.
When I returned from church late Sunday night, a United Methodist minister, Rev. Victor McCullough of the Mt. Zion United Methodist Church in New Orleans, sat dejected in the lobby of the hotel. He and his family of five had spent the previous night in their car in the parking lot of the Hampton Inn in Lafayette, La. As we talked and prayed, the clerk at the hotel informed him two cancellations made it possible for him and his family to be housed. That was God!
The following night at the revival, we met another United Methodist minister, from Rayne Chapel United Methodist Church in New Orleans, also displaced but able to stay with friends. It was then that I found out that these two ministers not only knew each other, but their congregations also were involved in ministry together. They added so much to our services. God brought them there!
By Monday, the church had adopted more than 300 refugees from Louisiana who were housed in the city's convention center, and on Monday and Tuesday our revival turned into a mission project as we supplied food, water, blankets and prayer to our brothers and sisters who had nothing.
The spirit in that convention center was overpowering. The presence of the risen Christ was unmistakable. Just think, I went to preach at a revival-and I left there revived!
The message and the meaning
When the psalmist wrote the words that appear at the beginning of this column, he could have easily written them for the events of this week. There are people wandering with no place to go. They are hungry and thirsty, and their souls have been depleted of all hope.
But in their distress, you and I are here to remind them that God is still in charge, and I know God is going to use us to bring our sisters and brothers out of this terrible situation.
Plug yourselves into one of the many relief ministries from your church or from our conference that are designed to help the victims of this tragedy. You will find when you reach out to the lost, the lonely and the distressed, God will be there, working things out as He has always done!