As I began to write this in bits and pieces a week ago today, Hurricane Irma had begun to approach my native Puerto Rico. My family there braced for the worst; the sense of expectation and fear was very real. It was the strongest Atlantic hurricane in recorded history, the news said; the island had not seen anything quite like this come through since Hurricane San Felipe in 1928, the memory of whose nearly total devastation remains alive and well in our collective memory a few generations later. To be honest, that Irma could be on this scale, or perhaps even worse, was a bit difficult to grasp: the great hurricane of my lifetime (thus far, at any rate) was the fearsome and formidable Hurricane Hugo in 1989, which came to us shortly after my 11th birthday. The winds caused some structural damage to my grandparents’ house, where we were all hunkered down, and we were without water or electricity for weeks. For my part, I remember being disappointed that I could not use a small amplifier for my guitar that my grandfather had ordered from the Sears catalog and duly picked up at the Santa Rosa Mall store for my birthday. But all of us were well, our homes were basically intact, and after clean up we were able to resume our lives in short order. Hundreds of thousand of others couldn’t say the same. In fact, too many could no longer say anything at all.
If you’ve been keeping track of the storm, you know that Hurricane Irma veered to the north in the nick of time, and that Puerto Rico was thus spared from the very worst. Yes, the ancient and fragile power grid in the island collapsed, and many (including my family) are still without power, but water service remained mostly uninterrupted, and other damage has been comparatively minimal (except in the small island of Culebra, the easternmost point of the Puerto Rican archipelago). I have no doubt that, soon after clean up and the eventual restoration of electric service, life will go on as usual. Many have expressed their relief in religious (and nationalistic) terms: ¡Dios bendijo a Puerto Rico! God blessed Puerto Rico! And, as in the past, that grotesque depiction of a Giant Hand blocking the path of the storm just east of the island has been making the rounds. (I remember it most vividly on the front page of a local newspaper some years ago.) But, of course, the Lesser Antilles were not thus spared; neither was Cuba, nor the Bahamas, nor indeed Florida. One shudders to think of the implications. Did the grotesque Giant Hand not protect them? Worse still, if they were not blessed, were they cursed? And whose Giant Hand is that, anyway—that of the God of the Bible, or the hand of Guabancex, who visits her fury in the winds of juracán?
“At that time, some people came and reported to [Jesus] about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. And he responded to them, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were more sinful than all the other Galileans because they suffered these things? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well. Or those eighteen that the tower in Siloam fell on and killed—do you think they were more sinful than all the other people who live in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as well.’” (St Luke 13:1-5, CSB)
There is, to my mind, no clearer illustration of the maddening capriciousness of storms than the aftermath of Hurricane Irma in Antigua and Barbuda. Two islands, a single nation, merely 30 miles apart. Antigua made it through with nary a scratch. Barbuda was literally flattened. But even that is not all: Saint Martin and Saint Barthélemy erupted into social chaos after the storm. Multiple places across the Caribbean and Florida are flooded, destroyed, or both. And then, a week before that, Hurricane Harvey put the Houston metropolitan area under water.
The late Rev’d Mr Fred McFeely Rogers (after whom the first-year Biblical Studies Prize at his alma mater, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, is named) would tell children and their parents that, in scary times, he liked to remember what his mother said to him when he was little: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.” And realizing that there were always so many helpers, he said, would bring him a great deal of comfort. In like manner also, in this time of storms, I have found great comfort in observing faith working by love. This has been nowhere more obvious to me than in our friend Mike Skinner and his congregation, Sweetwater Christian Church in Sugar Land, Texas. There I saw a pastor who no sooner than he was out of the water (literally!) set about the business of claiming his sheep. I saw a local congregation determined to account for each in every one given to them, without exception. And, with everyone claimed and accounted for, I saw this small but tireless Christian community turn out to the streets, immediately and nearly unprompted, in a rush to embrace and assist their neighbors. Blessed are you, Mike Skinner. Blessed are you, Sweetwater Christian Church. You are the helpers. May many others, as many as are able, help you in helping others.
Did God bless Puerto Rico? Did God curse Barbuda, and Jost Van Dyke, and Houston, and…? I cannot countenance those questions, and much less the tone-deaf platitudes that give rise to them. But here is what I know: after the fury of the storm, if anyone survives at all, it isn’t so that they may boast. It must be—it must—so that, with their own hands, they may glorify God by their deeds in the care of others.
Some books that have helped me to think about this over the years: Henri Blocher, Evil and the Cross (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1994); David Bentley Hart, The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsunami? (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005); Terence Fretheim, Creation Untamed: The Bible, God, and Natural Disasters (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010); and of course, Voltaire’s Candide, or Optimism.