Lessons from a Slow Motion Disaster

June 11, 2018, Pahoa, Hawai’i

In a conversation with a friend and colleague today, as we shared our fears about the COVID-19 pandemic, the approaches we were taking or considering, and the wide expanse of potential futures, I mentioned that I had been looking forward to a time with less stress in my ministry. In each of the last three years, natural disasters and community conflicts have shaken my neighbors (sometimes literally), my colleagues in faith leadership, and our institutions. I had truly hoped that 2020 would bring some relief.

It has not.

In 2018, lava erupted from the lower slopes of Kilauea, spilling across farms, roads, and houses. Half of the Leilani Estates subdivision vanished and all of Kapoho. Places of great beauty are no more. The molten rock flowed for four months. Sometimes it chose new channels, displacing new people. Sometimes it simply flowed in a well-bounded river. Residents scrambled to evacuate, and sometimes returned to recover additional possessions. Some of them have been able to return home. Some never can.

As we observed that the pandemic was not a one day and done event, my friend asked me, “What have you learned about a slow motion disaster?”

I learned that community connection and collaboration are vital. The faith groups of Hawai’i dithered briefly (we must admit that) and organized quickly. We built on existing relationships among clergy and lay leaders. Then we strengthened them. We created brand-new relationships with one another. We strengthened those, too. The “Faith Hui,” as we came to be known, was not unique. Collaborations sprang up between newly formed groups such as the Pu’uhonua of Puna and the Bodacious Women of Pahoa formed in 2013.

Nobody worked alone – or if they did, they didn’t do it effectively, or they didn’t do it for long.

We learned to conserve our strength as leaders and as congregations. We took on tasks, and we handed tasks along. We recruited people from outside our congregations or organizations to help. Some partnerships lasted only a few days, others persisted. Since the lava stopped flowing, new partnerships have evolved to aid in recovery, or to adapt programs built for one purpose to serve a new and similar one.

Sometimes leaders had to step back. Other leaders stepped forward.

We learned that sometimes we had to attend to our own needs. Spiritual care for people in the Red Cross shelter in Pahoa never reached the levels we’d hoped or anticipated. Some couldn’t take the atmosphere, which, just a few miles away from the fissures, was laden with sulfur. I myself had to step away for a few weeks because my father died, nor was I the only faith leader in that period to suffer the loss of a loved one.

The heart may yearn to be in more than one place, but the body can only be in one.

We learned to stay out of the way of other efforts. As someone who had done event photography for so many years, and as someone who loves to capture the power of nature in images, I yearned to visit the area with a camera. But… that would have added almost nothing to the assistance needed by those affected. It would have done little to tell the story that was not already being done by others. My camera and I stayed home. The photo above, taken from three miles away in the village of Pahoa, was as close as was sensible and as close as I came.

We didn’t have to do everything. There were things we simply should not do.

As I lead a study series on Wisdom this Lenten season, I hope this brief meditation reflects some wisdom for this crisis, for this pandemic. We must not work alone. We must be ready to step back as needed and step forward as needed. We must meet our own needs.

We do not have to do everything.

There are things we simply should not do.

Photo by Eric Anderson.

2 responses to “Lessons from a Slow Motion Disaster

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.