A report from the banks of mighty Gills Creek in Columbia, South Carolina.
In the wee hours of Sunday, October 4, my phone’s National Weather Service Alert passed along a message I’d never seen before. “Civil Danger Warning, Columbia SC” blared on my screen, with frighteningly little helpful information. My husband and I quickly discovered that water had overrun much of our now-hometown; the saturating rain of the last days had resulted in overworked dams which breached and gave way to free-flowing water — right through our backyard.
When we bought our home more than two years ago, we hadn’t given much thought to the little urban waterway at the end of our block. Gills Creek seemed more like a catch-all for runoff than a serious flow barreling toward the coast. That Sunday morning, the creek had already completely obstructed one exit from our street, and was perilously close to two neighbors’ houses. Before noon, they were both full of raging brown water, and the river crept close to our street’s other only entrance. The ark jokes weren’t as funny anymore; real sorting through precious possessions began at the backs of our minds.
We were fortunate; soon after, swollen Gills Creek crested and we never even lost power in the whole ordeal. Just down the street, our literal neighbors weren’t so lucky. Our neighbors over our back fence, living in cost-effective converted condos, didn’t fare so well either. For the past two weeks every morning, noon, and night, we hear the loudspeaker blare, “American Red Cross. Hot Meals. Come up to the Truck.” Wet carpets, waterlogged drywall, musty linens, and destroyed furniture are heaped in piles on almost every street. The main thoroughfare connecting the downtown to the suburbs is indefinitely closed. We see reminders of the flood’s passage everywhere; stores are constantly out of drinking water, silt and strange detritus collects at storm drains, traffic cones denote sink holes in city streets.
There’s no way to avoid what’s happened in Columbia and the surrounding area in the last month. In the midst of this destruction, though, people have pulled together, brought hot meals to shelters, offered extra bedrooms to friends and family in need, taken time off to help clean up each others’ homes. What’s happened is beautiful — bringing people who usually have political disagreements or differing theological convictions together under the name of God, the brotherhood of man.
But I still feel sick.
People who lived on the man-made lakes and lost their homes and belongings have friends who live upstream or on the golf course who can lend them an extra car or furniture from their vacation home while they assess their new situation. Family members may fill up the guestrooms for a few weeks, or even months, but their insurance claims will go through, and they’ll get a carpool to work, and before long, a new normal will take hold. Some semblance of normalcy and stability will return, because their safety nets are strong and thick and padded.
Just across my backyard fence, family members can’t fill up relatives’ guestrooms because they already lived together in a few rooms. Already, there was hardly enough to cover food plus the rent or the mortgage — how was anyone supposed to find money for an insurance payment every month, too? If there had been a car, probably shared amongst the family, there was no money for another one, and by the time a FEMA check comes in the mail, the job for which it was used will be long gone.
My preacher said on Sunday, “There are thousands of people in Columbia who were just a natural disaster away from homeless.” He said it could have been a failed automobile transmission, or a break in, or one week with sick kid, but this time it was a flood.
The safety nets aren’t as padded or thick for the working poor; the truth in Columbia, South Carolina is that you can’t always get by with a little help from your friends. Your friends might be out of work and out of a home, too. So what’s a church to do?
With all the sick people who came to Jesus, it’s sort of a wonder that he didn’t set up a hospital, or establish a Healing Waters Spa, or at least build a franchise system of clinics for the disciples to run. Wouldn’t that have been really clever? Wouldn’t the Son of God have been so much more effective at spreading the medicinal message if he’d just built some infrastructure around it? Why not set up a website or a call center to organize the needs pouring in?
Jesus sat down with people. Jesus put hands on people and prayed. This is the way that Jesus healed people. There’s nothing wrong with a call center or a hospital or a franchise clinic, but they’re all things offered by just about anybody. If churches are aping the Red Cross or FEMA, we’re not particularly fulfilling God’s call in Jesus Christ. In Isaiah, God promises:
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you. (43:2)
A church is to follow Jesus, God incarnate — to be with those who are passing through the waters, to choose to go (bodily) and wade back into the dirty flood waters to sift through the wreckage with your brothers and sisters. This is the call of our baptism. This is the water that saves.