He sat on the opposite side of town watching the storm unfold. A massive tornado was bearing down on Tuscaloosa and heading directly towards his son. The TV weather man shared reports of widespread destruction — exactly in the area of town where his son lived. He silently rose, excused himself, and left. He was going to find his son.
He raced across town only to be stopped by debris and traffic still a mile short of his destination. He parked and began to run — in shorts and flip-flops — through debris, downed trees and what remained of homes and businesses. His eyes scanned the community – utter devastation, unrecognizable landmarks. He soon found an area of homes still standing. His son’s home had survived – and his son had, too.
Stories such as this have been repeated countless times in the past three months — in towns all across the South — the lingering effects of the epic outbreak of tornadoes that ravaged homes, businesses and lives. We have witnessed incredible stories of survival. We have seen images of destruction we couldn’t imagine. We have watched as landmarks we have known for a lifetime are reduced to rubble. We have seen families suffering the tragedy of losing loved ones. We have watched people standing in the debris of their homes with nothing from their former life to take into their hands. We have watched an outpouring of caring and service as others have moved to help.
It is the same story I have seen played out over the past 20 years of my life. I have experienced people and communities in the aftermath of devastating natural disasters in diverse locations: floods in Missouri and North Carolina; hurricanes in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana; earthquakes in Haiti; tornadoes in Alabama.
In each situation I have had a hard time making sense of such massive suffering. I seem to always struggle with the “why” when things like this happen. I am at a loss for meaning in the face of such disasters.
I am not a philosopher. I am not a theologian. But, I must ask myself some of these tough, existential questions: What is at the heart of this story? What is it really about? Is there hope?
Haiti has always suffered as one of the most underdeveloped countries in the Western Hemisphere. Abject poverty, crumbling infrastructure and ethically questionable government leaders make Haiti the worst candidate for dealing with a massive natural disaster. In January 2010 the unthinkable happened: a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck 15 miles WSW of Port-Au-Prince. 100,000 to 200,000 were estimated killed, millions were left homeless. Countless tent cities sprung up all over the affected parts of the country.
Over one year later, I witnessed first-hand the devastation that still remains in Haiti: crumbling government buildings, tent cities in every public space, unlivable communities and unsanitary living conditions. But I discovered something else: hope!
In the midst of such tragedy the Haitian people have hope – hope of recovery, hope of life as usual, hope of a restored community. Some of my Haitian friends taught me a Creole phrase that shows their response to suffering so well: Bondye Bon, or God is Good. In the midst of suffering, they experienced the goodness of God and they responded with hope and action. Yes, indeed. Bondye Bon!
Maybe I am finally finding some meaning. I may never understand or be able to explain the “why?” of such disasters, but maybe I’ll be able to learn something by just struggling with the questions. Just maybe I can make some sense out of these disasters that seem so senseless.
I think this Real Southern Man has discovered a few simple truths — maybe they will not answer all of your questions, maybe they with prompt others — but it is where I have come down in this journey:
Life is hard. We will all suffer in life. Hard times inevitably come. We will suffer loss. We will suffer hurt. We will be exposed to tragedy. The hard things of life will visit us. Trials, storms, pain — we will know them all at some point.
There is hope. Like my Haitian friends who discovered the goodness of God in the midst of terrible suffering, I hope I can respond with a hopeful heart when suffering visits me. Will I let the pain, suffering or trials conquer me? Or will I take the long view and see a hopeful future on the other side of suffering?
We are made to move. Just as a father runs to find his son, we are made to respond to tragedy and suffering by moving to help. Marketing guru Seth Godin says we can be “editors” or “initiators.” We can sit on the sideline and comment or criticize. Or we can stand up and initiate, act, move, do, create, help! I hope to become the person who sees suffering and responds with creative initiative.
I know this world; this story of suffering is bound to repeat itself. Hard times will come, tragedy will strike, lives will be broken, loss will be experienced. Will it surprise us when it does? Will we have hope? Will we move?
These are good questions for any Real Southern Man to ask. In the end, I pray we answer them with a simple, sincere Bondye Bon.