Posts tagged with: wildfires

Blog author: kwoods
Thursday, January 19, 2006
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Wait for government help?

A couple of weeks ago, I noted the amazing “just do it” outpouring of compassion in response to the wildfires in the Central Plains. My small home town in Oklahoma was among those areas burned or seriously damaged by the fires.

Since Nov. 1, more than 363,000 acres, 220 structures and four deaths have been attributed to these wildfires. Much of the destruction has occured on Indian trust lands within such areas as the Chickasaw, Choctaw, Muskogee Creek and Seminole tribal jurisdictions, as well as more densely populated areas like Oklahoma City and Edmond, Okla. As of Jan. 14, there were more than 1,000 fires and in excess of 411,000 acres burned.

But counter to the culture, many of the people affected don’t consider “government help” as the first response. Nor should they. According to one report, Oklahoma officials said it took FEMA 12 days to approve the state’s request for comprehensive disaster assistance to combat wildfires.

Of course Oklahomans are grateful for the useful government help they do get, especially for those emergency firefighters. But much of the relief work could be simply categorized as neighbors and church folks helping each other. An article from the United Methodist News Service quotes my mother’s pastor in Seminole: “Most of the work that’s done here is the community working together … We had already started doing that when the fires came.” They’re already starting to rebuild homes lost in the fire.

“The community really depends on one another and uses the churches as a hinge point for relief efforts,” said Rev. Wayne Loftin, pastor of Davis United Methodist Church.

When the need goes beyond what neighbors and community can provide, then the next level of assistance in this case has been the conference-based United Methodist Committee on Relief. The efforts of multiple churches in multiple denominations contribute, too.

Don Oxford from the Davis church said, “We didn’t do anything heroic. We just do whatever we need to do.”

Would that we could all expand our own responses to the daily needs of neighbors around us, never waiting for international, national or even local agencies to show up. Dig in and get started. So many people are willing to help and in a way that helps people rebuild their lives. And this work greatly enriches personal relationships, quickly blurring the lines between helped and helper.

My little home town of Seminole, Oklahoma, has been scorched by the wildfires sweeping through parts of Oklahoma and Texas. My mother’s beloved horse riding trails in the rural area around Seminole are either smoldering or threatened. I talked to an old high school friend about our response to the disaster. He said, “Karen, we paid attention after those hurricanes. We’re not looking to the government for help. The churches and people all around here have been helping since the fires started. People who had little to begin with, including insurance, have lost everything, even their kids’ Christmas.”

Why does it take such tragedies – fires, floods, hurricanes – to generate a wake up call for people to reach out to needy neighbors? The cultural shift toward “government professionals” taking primary care of society’s problems began 75 years ago, but surely this past year has made at least a figurative believer of the most adamant agnostic: Faith-based organizations meet even catastrophic needs more efficiently and effectively than government agencies or their bureaucratic charity look-alikes.

Subsidiarity – local people meeting individual and community needs in a manner that is direct, personal, and accountable – is more than just a “high falutin’ word” (as my mother often reminds me). Common sense by any other name is still common sense.

How many of us wait for a natural disaster before we’ll actively respond to need? If civil society truly is rooted in the belief that each person is created in God’s image and therefore has worth and dignity, then why is such a natural outreach to neighbors (across the fence and across town) not part of our daily lives?

In Oklahoma, churches that don’t normally house food banks and clothing stores have been collecting these things to help people who have been burned out. But local assistance, as with the Gulf hurricanes, needs to be broader. One group of churchgoers in Texas sat in folding chairs next to their burned out church for Sunday services, a reminder that that people are the church, not the building. The broader faith community is the most effective model of subsidiarity. And that’s a good high falutin’ word for a principle that is simple and true.