Over the past three months, our hearts have been broken and challenged to stretch wide to serve the many people affected by disasters.
In late August Hurricane Harvey hit Texas and Louisiana, killing at least 82 people and causing $75 billion in damages. In early September Hurricane Irma caused catastrophic damage in the Caribbean — including the Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, and Cuba — before heading toward Florida and inflicting more damage there. At least 44 people in the Caribbean and 61 people in the United States were killed. When Bishop Herbert Bevard of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands managed to make a call to Catholic Extension, he described the island as “bombed out” as a consequence of the storm.
Next, Hurricane Maria lashed Dominica and Puerto Rico, killing at least 15 people and 48 people, respectively. When they can get cellular service, diocesan contacts in Puerto Rico report that electricity will be out for months, and that people everywhere on the island are clamoring for necessities—food and water, medicine and sanitation supplies—all the while working to reduce the spread of water-borne diseases and other threats to public health. The Church is the first place many go in the face of emergency, and Catholic Extension’s emergency $350,000 grant has helped the six dioceses there to provide necessities.
Meanwhile, our neighbors in Mexico experienced earthquakes in September and October that have killed hundreds; and in California, wild fires have claimed the lives of at least 42 people and have destroyed some 8,400 structures—the worst fires in California history.
While the news has been grim, I have been struck by the number of stories of simple heroism that have emerged from these disasters.
I think of the many people who donated their fishing boats to help with rescue efforts in Texas, or the numbers of teens in Mexico who left school in order to ride their bikes to deliver food, water, and medicine to neighbors affected by the earthquakes. These and many other stories of generosity have shone slivers of light in otherwise dark times. The human heart is vast, and its depth often shows most clearly in situations of great need.
Yet here we are now, weeks removed from these disasters. We who live in areas untouched by them are challenged to consider how to remain in solidarity with the many whose lives have been affected. What does it mean to love in the face of such hardship? I suggest that it begins by moving from an attitude of helping to an attitude of service.
The desire to help is a natural response to seeing another’s pain. It is surely rooted in a good heart open to others: It springs into action, desiring to put boots on the ground and gifts in the hands of those who need them. We saw many examples of the desire to help in the wake of the disasters. Yet the desire to help, while good, is too often entwined with self-interest. We want to be heroes; we want to step in and save the day; we want to have spotlights shone on our efforts and stories written about the lengths we’ve traveled to lend a hand.
The call to service is different. Long after those who help have gone home (and, to be fair, have gone on to help others when the need is great), those who serve are doing what they can to understand the long road to recovery. Those with a heart for service recognize their limitations, and do everything they can to listen carefully to those they serve. Helpers want to fix things, but sometimes their fixes cause problems, such as in the cases of those who showed up in flood-ravaged areas only to learn that they had nowhere to sleep safely, putting a strain on already-stretched resources.
Servers want to discern carefully, move deliberately, and let those affected take the lead.
The call to service is a call to imitate Christ, who “came to serve, not to be served” (Mark 10:45)—that is, to enter into communion with the suffering of the world. Our call as Catholics is to extend God’s mercy towards those in need, to walk with them on the long road and understand that our happiness and theirs are inextricably entwined. This is what Catholic Extension has been doing for many decades in dioceses like the US Virgin Islands, the six dioceses of Puerto Rico, and Beaumont, Texas.
Solidarity, wrote St. John Paul II, is “is not a feeling of vague compassion or shallow distress at the misfortunes of so many people, both near and far.” It is rather a willingness to let my life change to serve those in need—because, he continues, “we are all really responsible for all” (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis 38). Our Church is a community of service in imitation of Jesus. Let our prayer, this week and always, be that the Lord will shape our hearts for service every time we come together in the celebration of the Eucharist.
Dr. Tim Muldoon is Catholic Extension's Director of Mission Education.