By Mike Smith
Like many, I’ve followed the story of the tornado-spawned tragedy in Oklahoma. The images called up memories of when an EF-4 tornado swept through Murfreesboro, Tenn., where I served as a pastor at the time. A young mother and her infant child died in the storm. Numerous others suffered injuries, and entire neighborhoods were destroyed.
As I watched interviews with storm victims in Oklahoma, I said to myself, “I know people who’ve experienced something like what you’re going through.” Perhaps victims and those coming to their assistance in Oklahoma are dealing with some of the same questions persons in Murfreesboro asked me. For what it may be worth, I want to share some of those questions and my responses.
Is this a punishment from God? I always answered: “No. The God we know in Christ never sends natural catastrophes to punish us for our sins or the sins of others. You’re the victim of a natural weather event, one that happens in our part of the world.” In my experience, people needed to hear this from someone they trusted, the sooner and the clearer the better. I did not attempt to elaborate on the subject in the immediate aftermath of the storm. When the victims later developed related questions, we addressed them in a calmer setting.
Where do I go tonight? At first blush, this sounds like a practical rather than a theological question. Actually, though, victims were asking, “Does anyone care for me, or am I on my own?” That’s a theological question of the first order. Drawing on my knowledge of local shelter arrangements, available transportation, and local church options, I answered: “Of course. The entire community wants to help. I can arrange for you to be taken to a shelter, where you can stay tonight or longer.” Clergy, along with others, represented the reality of community in a time of crisis.
Why did I live when someone else died? The loss of a friend may prompted such a question on the part of a survivor. Farther afield, those not directly touched by storm sometimes asked, “Why them and not me?” My answer was: “I do not know, but I’m glad you’re here with me.” Such an answer seemed to help individuals make it through the moment at hand. Later, some victims and I returned to the question, but we reframed it: “I’m alive. Now, what I am going to do with my life.”
How should I pray? I remember a woman who said to me, “I don’t know how to pray. Help me.” Rather than talk about the matter, I offered to pray on her behalf. The short prayer I spoke aloud expressed grief and confusion over the tragedy, the woman’s need for comfort and practical help, and the hope that soon she would sense the presence of God. In other cases, I counseled them to share their honest feelings with God, much as did the psalmists, and to know that was enough for now. Again and again, I offered to do the praying for others until such time as they felt ready to try.
Will I ever feel normal again? Numerous victims posed such a question in one form or another. In most instances, I answered: “I don’t know that you will ever feel the same as you felt before the storm. I believe that in time, and with God’s help, you will arrive at a new normal. Others and I are willing to walk beside you, listen to you, pray with you, and help you find your way.” Sometimes such an answer brought a measure of assurance to a victim. Others responded, “I wish I could believe that was possible.” Most of the persons, though, ultimately took me up on the offer to take the journey with them, and at this time, many of them have fashioned their new normal.
Where is God? Many times I did not answer with words. Instead, I held the person’s hand or touched them gently on the shoulder. Never underestimate the power of touch to communicate the presence of God! Sometimes I responded: “Right here, right now through me and a host of others come to help in God’s name.” When a victim wanted to know where God was when a loved one suffered an injury or worse, I responded: “God was there with her. God hurt with her. God never left her side. God is with her now.” Brevity and directness seemed most effective. The persons with whom I worked neither wanted nor needed a theological essay at that point in time. They did need to hear God was present with them and their loved ones.
May God grant wisdom to the victims of the Oklahoma storms and all who seek to help them, now and in the days to come.