I was four when Hurricane Elena hit. When I thought about it today at the grocery store, standing in line alongside every person in my town, buying bread and water to prep for Hurricane Harvey, I remembered being six or seven. But I Googled to confirm, and I was four--a four year old spending the night on a sleeping bag in a high school with my mom and dad, my three year old brother and my grandmother who’d driven toward the storm with a cooler full of food when she heard we’d have to leave the house, a house in the woods by a river less than a mile from the coast.
Over a million people on the Gulf Coast were evacuated in the days before Elena finally made landfall. She spun and swirled in the Gulf, where she’d land no one knew. Maybe Weeki Wachi, Florida. Maybe our little, fragile home. We waited nervously like middle schoolers playing spin the bottle.
My husband was six when Elena hit. He lived in Houston, just across the warm water. He remembers the warnings and playing in flooded streets.
I remember my dad boarding up the windows. I remember one wide hallway from the high school we stayed in. I can see my little hands reaching into a cooler. I remember standing in an open door, watching the rain pummeling the parking lot, cool fresh air on my tiny anxious face.
I wonder what we did with the dog.
A reporter took a picture of me at the high school, me and my favorite doll. It ran in the paper that week, and my other grandmother clipped it and kept it for twenty years. Lately she’s been sending me all the clippings she kept. She says she doesn’t want me to have to throw it all away after she dies. I can just throw it away now. In the picture from the paper I’m looking at the camera, my Cabbage Patch Kid hanging by my side. It’s exactly the kind of picture people use in newspapers and magazines to tell stories of devastation. I look like a little refugee--my hair a mess, my clothes rumpled, my face painted a thick coat of concern, my one possession in my tightly closed hands.
I thought of this image as I watched the coverage of flooding in Houston and Corpus Christi, Port Aransas. I thought of it, too, as I walked from photograph to photograph in a gallery in Denver just a few days earlier, a show comprised of large black and white images of African refugees, each one in dirty clothes, probably their only clothes, often holding tight to some possession.
All of these images have me remembering the few times in my life when I, too, have been displaced, pushed from my home by the threat of violence. Times like Hurricane Elena. Or the year my grandmother got cancer and my parents moved me to a new school and a new house, away from the small house in the woods on the river and into a subdivision and a shared room with my brother and cold terrazzo floors. And then moved me again a year later, into my grandfather’s house, a house haunted by the memory of my grandmother who’d died of that cancer.
If you’d taken a picture of me from that time I’d have certainly been wearing my Boca Ciega Pirates hoodie, the thing I wore as I sat courtside watching my grandmother coach basketball. After she died, I pulled the hood over my head, tucked my size small knees into the size large cotton, and held tight to the drawstrings. My parents tried in vain to make me wear anything else.
Hurricane Elena, the looming danger of the late summer of 1985, did not hit Weeki Wachi, FL. It made a last minute adjustment and hit Mississippi causing a billion dollars worth of damage. But my little house survived, not even a broken window. I’d get to live in it for two more years before tragedy would force us out again.
Growing up on the water in Florida, I learned how to track a hurricane. We’d do it in school, plot the movement with pins on big blue maps. The local papers would include maps for you to plot at home. Our schools sent hurricane preparedness brochures to our parents. Signs flanked the roads--”Hurricane evacuation route.” Local bars threw hurricane parties. On Saturdays I turned on the TV and rooted for my football team, the Miami Hurricanes.
When Hurricane Andrew hit south Florida my family drove down to help with the clean up. My grandfather said he stood in a subdivision leveled like a forest cut down for lumber and cried.
We knew Andrew was coming. Knew it would hit somewhere. Knew the flooding and winds would be devastating. But standing there where a home should be and isn’t, watching families wade through debris looking for something, anything that might have survived the storm, a wedding album, a pet, a stuffed animal… That’s different. There are few losses as complete and as devastating as the loss of home.
A friend of mine recently lost her mother and her father. The grief was heavy, but she’d experienced grief before. Lost a child even. This feeling was different. She called her friend, a counselor, and asked, “What is this?” And her friend, wise and warm, said, “When your parents are both dead you don’t have a home. You’re not just grieving your parents; you’re grieving the loss of home.”
I spent last week on vacation in the mountains. Everything was peace and joy, simplicity and wholeness. Two days after I came home a Hurricane charged my state like a bull in a fight and a friend of mine’s brother died in a tragic accident at work. He was in his thirties, healthy, raising a daughter on his own. My friend, wrecked, drove almost seven hours to get to his body. I texted a few words, our small group sent flowers, but I’m sitting here tonight, rain that won’t stop falling outside my window, knowing there’s just not much I can do. I am on the periphery of this storm, standing in the rain saved from the flood, watching my people suffer.
Back in Denver, in that gallery with the pictures of refugees, I wondered, Why is this art? It’s history, certainly. Journalism, sure. But art? To stand in a room full of broken hearts and dirty clothes and messy hair? To look at people in their hardship? To stare at their worst? I said to my husband, To capture only a person’s weakness is to make them less human. I think that’s true. But thinking as I have about my friends in pain, my fellow Texans underwater, everyone forced out their homes for one reason or another--flooding, death, divorce, war, eviction, foreclosure, change--I wonder if I simply looked with the wrong eyes. I wonder if I looked and saw difference when I should have looked and seen sameness. I wonder if the pictures made me pity when the goal was to make me remember: Home is fragile. Today it’s them. Tomorrow it’s you.
Homelessness can happen to us all. Sometimes we forget that up in the mountains, breathing clean air, eating grapes and goat cheese, loved and loving, isolated from the tides of loss common in the valley. We forget that everything is temporary. That even our home, the wood and glass and plaster or the flesh and bones and laughter, can be swept up and out from under us.
What do you do with that? How do we navigate a world where people are mist and hurricanes wipe out houses and wars uproot whole nations?
Tonight I saw a video of semi trucks from our local Texas grocery store headed into the most damaged coastal cities with food and water. Twelve trucks all loaded with nourishment, generosity, love, provision. The trucks included mobile kitchens capable of serving 2500 people a hot meal in an hour.
In my city there’s this organization that teaches refugee women how to sew. They get them sewing machines and help them get jobs. They also find mentors for refugee kids, people who can help them navigate the transition, practice the new language, people to be the aunts and uncles they left behind in Syria or Somalia.
When my friend’s brother died this week, my church put out a call for financial assistance. He hadn’t had life insurance. They needed help with the funeral. By the time I logged on to donate, maybe two hours after the church wide email, they’d raised over $4,500.
Maybe when home can be wiped away, we become people willing to bring home to the displaced. Maybe we pick up our little sticks and pile them up with other people’s sticks and make sturdy, safe nests.
Yes, those nests might be wiped away. If they are, we’ll build them again. And again.
When my grandmother died, my family moved in with my grandfather. He picked me up from school every day. I spent Sunday afternoons in his office at the church building. My grandmother dying brought us closer, bound us to one another, pushed us to be more for one another. We built something beautiful from the ugly shrapnel of grief. And then, about a year after her death, a few days before my ninth birthday, my grandfather had a heart attack. He actually suffered the brunt of it in the bathtub at our house. Being a fireman he knew what was happening, but being stubborn he refused to call 911. Instead he climbed into the bathtub and asked me to knock on the door every ten minutes. He said, “If I don’t answer, call your dad.”
Later at the clinic, watching doctors and nurses rush him out of the building and into an ambulance on a stretcher, pumping air into his lungs, his eyes closed, I thought, “This is how it will always be. Everyone I love will die.”
Every home I build will be washed out to sea.
I’m sharing this story because I don’t want to end this inauthentically, all sunshine and elbow grease and resilience. Humans are gallant and capable and, filled with the Holy Spirit of God our Father and King, they are a mighty force. We cannot ignore or deny the power of people getting up and trying again, people sharing their lives with others, risking their lives for others, people bound together by the task of making a safe place for shelter, provision, belonging and peace.
We can’t fix everything. Even empowered by God, home isn’t easy to rebuild or remake. We can (and should and must) love more and help more but that love and help won’t completely stop the forward march of uprooting, displacement, and destruction. Loving and helping is the best we can do. It matters. It’s good and holy. But we can’t heal all the hurt. And if we do, more hurt will just roll in.
That’s the way it is here, here in this place that isn’t (that can’t be) home.
And that would be depressing, too depressing really, if there wasn’t another place, a truer reality, a home that lasts forever, a home rich in love and joy, provision, belonging and peace built on an unwavering foundation. A home inhabited by my Father and by so many people I’ve loved and lost and soon will find again.
The Apostle Paul writes in I Corinthians, “For we know that if the earthly tent we live in is destroyed, we have a building from God, an eternal house in heaven, not built by human hands.”
As a kid, a little girl living on the Florida coast, I sang a song at church about a man who built his house on sand and when a storm came through it washed his house away. But then another character entered the song, a man who built his house on a rock. This time, when the storm came through, the house stood firm.
We sang the chorus like the children we were, happy and unable to grasp the fullness of our words, “Build your house upon the Lord Jesus Christ.”
Jesus tells this story of the two houses in Matthew 7, and it’s about the Kingdom of Heaven, about investing there while you’re here. It’s about building on the rock of faith in Christ and ensuring safety, family, and love in the life to come. Jesus promises that the house we build will not fall.
Building that house looks like acting in faith and sometimes acting in faith looks like providing for others what God will provide for us--offering shelter to the stranger, food and water to the hungry and thirsty, love to the lonely--those nests we build from our little sticks. No, the physical things we build here won’t last, but sometimes the provision of physical things is the brick and mortar with which we build on Christ our rock.
This world, on the other hand, the things that matter to it, Jesus says that’s sand. He says of the house built here, “The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”
You can build a home here on this shifting surf beside these uncertain seas, and see how it fares, but storms like Harvey and Elena, storms like my grandmother’s death, storms like wars in Africa and unexpected heart attacks, those storms remind me (whether I’m in the thick or watching from close by or far away) that what I build here is often impermanent and vulnerable. Storms like the one outside my window remind me to seek higher ground and invest my life in building something sure to last.