Beyond Disaster Relief

By Dawn Skjei Cooley

This is written for those of us on the sidelines of Harvey, not those of you struggling with the effects. To those of you struggling, we send love and support.

The devastating flooding in Texas and Louisiana has sparked a lot of conversation and speculation from those not directly impacted. From ridiculous wonderings about how anyone could have predicted this and why people live on the shore to concerns about whether people will be denied aid based on their immigration status and wondering from afar about how to help, these events are sparking several conversations that are, at the same time, long overdue and a rehash of ones we have had repeatedly.

We know that the climate has changed and that storms like these will be a part of the new normal. And yet how many communities, even knowing this, have plans in place for such a crisis?

We know that poorer parts of communities are the hardest hit – not just because they are often built in less desirable areas where levees are often breached, but because people living in poverty often lack the resources or ability to evacuate until it is too late.

We know that there is systemic racism at play, from where communities are built, to rumors that immigration papers would be checked at shelters (which they supposedly weren’t, but there were reports of checkpoints established outside the city) and much, much more.

We know we want to help but our helping often becomes unhelpful. Our desire to “help” comes from our own discomfort at watching the events unfold on TV. We want to feel like we have done something, anything and so sometimes, we do things that aren’t that helpful, are are “unhelpful helping." My colleague in the Southern Region, Natalie Briscoe, posted a very helpful Do’s and Don’ts on helping on her Facebook page.

And we follow the advice from Mr. Roger’s mother, who would say to him, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping” and are comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world. Indeed, many of us are trying to help from afar by contributing to the UUA/UUSC Harvey Relief Fund.

And yet, I am also ruminating on something another friend of mine posted on Facebook last week. She observed that our tendency is to latch on to these stories and think about how great it is that we help each other out when we must. But, she asks, why must it take a disaster, such as a hurricane, to get us to treat one another with care and concern? She writes:

We're in basic human instinct mode right now. Our brains tell us not to let bodies float away. But they tell us different things about how to treat those bodies and the souls within them when the sun is shining and there's power and success and money at stake.

So when the waters subside and rebuilding begins, may the stories we've seen serve not as positive inspiration, but gut level conviction.

These stories ask me if I have been my brother's keeper. If I cared about his livelihood before his actual, physical life was at stake. And that's a question worth sitting with, one that likely comes with answers warranting repentance and fruit that bears in keeping with it.

Can you imagine how it would be if we always treated one another with the care and concern we show during a crisis? What a different world it would be. This is the world of the Beloved Community, the world we strive to create as Unitarian Universalists by putting our hands on the moral arc of the universe and bending it towards justice. This is a world where all people are treated with dignity and care, and have access to their basic needs met.

So send love, and care, and financial support to those in Texas and Louisiana, but don’t stop there. Let us work to find ways to implement these actions and attitudes into our daily lives. Urge your representatives and elected officials to create crisis plans, knowing more events like this will happen. Work to create legislation that treats people with dignity at all times. Demand justice for those in need – not just in a natural disaster but at all times (remember, it has been over two years that residents in Flint, Michigan have been unable to drink their water). For better and for worse, we will have many opportunities to practice. Let’s make them count by learning from them.

About the Author

Dawn Skjei Cooley

The Rev. Dawn Skjei (SHAY) Cooley believes that Unitarian Universalists are called to "Love the Hell Out of the World" and tries to practice this on a regular basis. She is passionate about helping congregations adapt to the changing cultural religious landscape.

For more information contact .