Prayer Is Only Where You Start

We just moved house three weeks ago, and I have a doctor appointment tomorrow as part of the whole process of getting established in a new city. It’s a dermatology visit, a routine skin scan for a pale girl who grew up in Southern California in the era of baby oil sunning and that blonde, big-eyed Coppertone baby having her tan line revealed by the puppy tugging on her bikini bottom. I’m pretty sure she’s gone now, replaced by a little girl in a swim shirt and a hat and sunglasses with her mom spreading sunscreen on her with a spackling knife.

coppertone baby

A dermatologist once told my redheaded mother that she was born to be a librarian in Seattle, so…yeah. Preventative maintenance is my destiny. What with move upheaval and a new baby in the family and book launch (don’t forget to buy Among the Lesser Gods, request it at your library, and tell your friends about it! There—I did promotional work)…anyway, I’m overdue for it, and I know I have a few spots that need attention. But I’m not sure if I’ll be going. Because, uh, my new city is Houston.

Hurricane Harvey flooding I-45 in Houston

Hurricane Harvey flooding I-45 in Houston. Photo: Business Insider

The moving truck pulled up in front of our home on August 8. Tropical Storm Harvey started brewing in the Gulf of Mexico two weeks later. It made landfall as a Category 4 Hurricane on August  25. When I call the doctor’s office, planning to say, “Look, I’m cool either way—reschedule me at will” all I get is a recording telling me today is June 16th and the office is closed because of some “inclement weather” that must have been months or years ago and they’ll be rescheduling. Weird.

I’m one of the lucky ones. We live in a levee improvement district where “improvement” was the operative word. The levees were built just a foot higher than necessary for an only-imaged 800-year flood, so that put us in one of a few islands marked as “voluntary” evacuation areas (surrounded by red “mandatory” evacuation areas), where we were expected to be safe in our homes but probably trapped there, cut off from the outside world by flooded roads. The 800-year flood is happening right now. So far the plan is working.

But the pictures of what’s going on around me are harrowing. It’s human nature to respond to them, to want to run and help, and I’m lifted up seeing what people do. Citizens with boats going into neighborhoods to bring out people trapped by the rising waters. Social media helping separated family members find one another. An Iraqi immigrant who lost his brother in the war rescuing an elderly couple. Animal lovers finding abandoned pets. People leaving safe homes to wade into flooded ones. I’m grabbing some extra bedding (THAT’S why I moved it!) to deliver to a nearby high school being used as a shelter.

But those who are farther away feel helpless. They ache to do something, but what? They’re too far away to participate, and charities consistently ask for money rather than goods that have to be transported and distributed. So what we hear and see, again and again, is this:

  • “I’m praying for you.”
  • “You’re in our prayers.”
  • “Sending love and prayers!”

Thank you. There is a uniting of hearts that comes from prayer. A power of community. I once visited a meeting where people had submitted prayer requests for particular needs, and the woman praying aloud for the group would incorporate each slip-of-paper request into her prayer. One stuck with me: “Please bless little Annie, Lord, who’s afraid of the potty. We don’t know what it’s like to feel like that, but you do. And help her mama understand and be patient while she learns to be brave.” I’m here to tell you, that room full of women was right there with that mama. Potty training. Amirite? We’ve all done it. We laugh and cry and pray for each other.

But there’s a lot wrapped up in that “laugh and cry” part. Sharing struggles, giving advice, helping somebody feel not so alone. The prayer is accompanied by the work of friendship and burden-bearing. If all you do is pray, you’ve done nothing but satisfy yourself that you’re a good person. And if your religion tells you that’s what God wants, well, I hope there’s a place where folks can practice that religion by themselves. That mama cleaning smeared feces out of clothes, furniture, hair (should I stop now?) is right to be downright offended by someone saying, “I’m praying for you” and walking away. No, prayer should be what focuses your mind and heart on doing the work.

So if you’re seeing the pictures and longing to do something, let me suggest you make three calls rather than one.

  1. God. Go for it. Feel that yearning in your heart toward your fellowman, the outpouring of love that comes from thinking hard about people other than yourself. You need to keep that feeling alive.
  2. An actual charity. This might take a little more work. You can find suggestions here. I’m especially excited about Team Rubicon, which uses the expertise of veterans and teams led by veterans in rebuilding efforts. I’m also in love with AirBnB right now, which is enabling people to offer free places for displaced residents and incoming volunteers to stay.
  3. Your congressperson. This model of disaster, followed by lots of shock and donating, followed by nothing until the next disaster, is ridiculous and expensive. My home is safe because money was spent preventatively rather than responsively, which is ALWAYS the cheapest and most effective way to go–like roofing with graded, designed, weather-certified (and expensive) shingles rather than plywood scraps, then riding out the rest of the storms safely rather than roofing again, and again, and again, and losing everything under the roof as well. More than one neighbor has told me that he will never again complain about how high our levee district fees are. You don’t have to reject God to accept science, which tells us that measurably higher sea levels and warmer ocean temperatures have contributed to more water being in this storm than storms before, leading to more rainfall, leading to more flooding…which means we need an infrastructure built around new models for what a 100-year or 800-year storm looks like.

Right about now is when that prayer is really going to help you and the people you’re trying to serve. Wrangling with congressional representatives is hard, draining, defeating work. Your heart is going to need some bolstering to keep you in the game. There’s no more shivering wet puppy being held up in front of you, but you have to keep going. Many representatives currently in Congress ran on the idea of Government Is Bad and Science Is a Crock and Take Care of Your Own Damn Self. Just before the storm, the President issued an executive order revoking a directive that established new flood risk standards for federal projects so that FEMA could pressure communities to build in a smarter, more resilient way. Shingles, rather than plywood. Cost nothing to the federal government itself, but mentioned things like “rising sea levels” and “climate change” so…it’s gone.

Despite loving the way it sounds to “support infrastructure,” and wanting a photo op hugging a wet person, the people in this camp don’t want to spend any actual money or bow to science. They will wear you down with form letters and deflection. Keep praying so that you can keep pushing. Tell them you don’t want to spend stupid money to rebuild inadequately, but smart money to build improvements that will make it unnecessary to rebuild over and over again. And that you’ll vote out stupid. When people and the things they build are safe, the entire country is better able to grow and prosper. Our fates are linked, just as prayer teaches us our hearts are. But just like a homeowner that needs a new roof, the less expensive choice in the long run is going to be the more expensive choice up front.

Take it from the girl with the recurrent basal cell carcinomas: pray, but also expect to spend necessary money and have a science-based action policy. I’m the granddaughter of Christian Scientists who both died before I was born, of treatable diseases being treated with the power of prayer, so let me assure you that one call won’t do much for my new city. Make all three.

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