Memories of the 2010 May flood continued.
As I drove into Nashville to church one morning last May, I received a call from Ingrid McIntyre asking for help. The people who lived in what was called Tent City had been flooded out of their homes and community, such as they were, on May 1. Since they lived near the river, they had barely escaped and lost almost all of their possessions. We might think they didn’t have that much to lose, but they were not homeless; they had makeshift shelters and personal possessions, had built a barbeque for cooking, and they lived in a community. Following the flood they had received housing but were to be evacuated THAT DAY. They needed shelter that very night. Could some of the men stay at Belmont for a couple of weeks? I thought of all the work and preparation and volunteers needed for hosting a night of Room in the Inn and wondered how we could possibly pull this off with such short notice. Questions were raised; doubts expressed; time needed to plan. But there was no time and so we said yes. Calls were made to John Kennedy and Al Morin, and we had volunteers for the first night. More people stepped up to help. We were facing a night without a volunteer when that morning Phil Duke unknowingly called and said he could stay that night if we needed him. Food arrived. Pancake breakfasts were cooked. It fell into place – not neatly or easily, but awkwardly, haltingly, and with great risk, as real ministry often happens.
They arrived every afternoon with stories to tell about the hassles over lost Social Security cards, FEMA frustrations, housing hopes, mail, sick relatives, and their own medical conditions. And they were so grateful. All we gave them was a mat on the floor of our Community Center with clean sheets and a blanket, a place to shower, and some food. One night when I apologized for a mix up that caused dinner to arrive late, one man said, “Hey, don’t worry about it. You all have done so much all ready. We’re just glad to be here.”
Then we had to deal with conflicts over the ongoing activities in the Community Center. The United Methodist Women had planned an extended program for two Wednesday nights, and we pondered where to store the men’s bedding. When the UMW leadership heard about it their response was that it was not necessary to move the men’s belongings. “Don’t disturb them,” they said. So the women met in the middle of the room with cots and blankets and stuff all around them. It seemed so natural, so right.
We learned their names. We heard their stories. A Marine whose wife and children were killed in a car wreck on their way to welcome him home from combat. Many of them were veterans. As we approached Memorial Day, the irony was hard to escape. They had given years of their lives to serve their country, but for various reasons could not reenter society. Many veterans come back with emotional and spiritual wounds as well as physical injuries. Some of them sleep on our streets. Some of them slept in our Community Center last year. And some of them wander around this neighborhood every day. I can’t help thinking that instead of observing Memorial Day with picnics and parades we should be advocating for better care for our veterans. Shouldn’t patriotism’s first concern be to care for the men and women who serve their country? Shouldn’t the people who sacrifice to serve be more important than the symbols? Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, and the 4th of July will never be the same for me. They will forever have the faces of veterans who live hand to mouth on the edges of the society they suffered to save.
Hosting our guests from Tent City last year was one of my most meaningful experiences at Belmont. I was so proud of the way this faith community stepped forward to meet a challenging need. Yet we only provided a brief respite from the elements, a little tender loving care in a world of hurt. What we gave them was a space, some food and a safe place to sleep. What did they give us? Jesus. “And when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you? ... Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
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