Shootings, Fires, and American Generosity

Americans responded to the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT in 2012 with immense generosity toward the victims’ families. But, as the New York Times surveyed in an article three weeks ago, there were unintended consequences from the large scale donations. Families saw their loved ones’ names and pictures used in ad campaigns to raise money, implying that donations would go to victims. But the national organizations often used the money for their own projects in Newtown.

Many people are now cautious about where they give during a tragedy.

Here in Chico, CA, we experienced incredible generosity to help survivors of the Camp Fire, which destroyed nearby Paradise last November. Local corporate giving was awe-inspiring. Sierra Nevada Brewery, along with many restaurants and stores, fed survivors free meals for weeks. National groups have also done amazing things. Samaritan’s Purse and other relief organizations have helped people sift the ashes to find belongings. Retailers like J. C. Penney gave away new clothing.

But relief can pose challenges. Almost immediately, our town received truckloads of used clothes and furniture. Initially these donations met lots of needs. But leftover mounds sat for weeks in storage rooms, garages, and sometimes parking lots. I fielded calls a month after the fire asking where to send clothes. Like many others, I pleaded with givers to desist.

Scuttlebutt was that many of the trucks were carrying donations from other disasters. I can’t confirm that. But I do imagine pastors on the hurricane-prone Gulf Coast lifting their hands in praise as shipping containers of used flip-flops and camo shorts finally departed their churches.

Local leaders advised people that gift cards were a better way to help, which set off a blizzard of plastic. Survivors could buy what they needed right away instead of digging through pressed-wood TV stands, plastic chairs, and pink Hello Kitty t-shirts with sparkles.

But we had to think fast about how to handle the cards. At a funeral I conducted days after the fire (an unrelated passing), people who came from out of town were shoving thousands of dollars of pre-paid credit cards into my hands. “I don’t need a receipt,” they would say. “Just pass it on to the victims.” Then they would drive off. My staff and I hustled back and forth to the office safe as fast as we could.

Local organizations scrambled to keep up with the giving, and the flaws have sometimes exposed larger entities to public resentment. The issue of where money goes has been at the heart of every conversation I’ve had with donors, especially strangers who call from out of town. “We want to know that our gifts will help the victims.”

The day after the fire, we opened a fund for the 28 individuals (12 households) from our church who lost everything in Paradise. On the web page, in phone conversations, and in email and text threads, we were clear that the fund was not for the broader community, only for our people. We were not able to administer anything larger than that. If the donor wanted a broader fund, we referred them to organizations that operated on a larger scale. Donors always asked, “Are you confident in that organization?” When we said yes, reporting what community members had experienced from the group, donors were grateful. All they wanted was due diligence.

Our fund received a total of $131,115.07 from November 2018 through May 2019, when we closed it. Every couple of months, a committee divided the proceeds equally among the 28 individuals. The committee also distributed the gift cards equally, but their value is not included in this total. The gifts made a significant difference to the survivors. We did nothing to promote this fund—no advertising, no pictures, no names. No part of the fund went to “administrative costs.” It closed with a deficit of one penny. (Please, do not help.)

If disaster strikes your community, you will see urgent generosity from strangers. You will also hear questions. Scale your disaster response to what you can really achieve, and be clear with donors about your limits. Advice about how to do this will be contradictory, and early on we spent too much time seeking input instead of cutting checks. Just set a simple goal and meet it.

The survivors will also be generous. Our job is to give. They can decide what to do with the help. My friend Joey Newton, a pastor in Newtown who prayed with grieving families at Sandy Hook on that horrifying day, told me that “many of the families started foundations to honor the death of their child by giving back. One such case not mentioned in the [Times] article is Race for Chase, named after one of the victims. It is a summer triathlon program run in partnership with the YMCA for children up to 12 years old. It has been a great program and is spreading throughout the state and beyond.”

Even though this kind of suffering is profound, our gifts can help survivors create redemptive legacies.

What I Learned from Final Phone Calls

Photo by  Joanne Francis  on  Unsplash

In a few minutes on the morning of November 8th, a black arch reached from the Sierra Nevada ridge into the Sacramento Valley over Chico. One minute it was a sunny morning, the next it was dark and cold. It was the fire Paradise, CA had been fearing.

Ten households from Living Hope Fellowship lived on the ridge until that morning. Now they were on the roads fleeing for their lives. My job as pastor was to make sure we knew where our families were.

I hit the phone, texting and calling. Here’s what I learned from those conversations.

  1. God gave us family and community to save our lives.

Paradise was full of people who lived alone, often but not always the elderly. With her husband driving down the road, flames behind them, Sheryl told me that their elderly neighbor had been standing helpless outside. She had never used her cell phone, and never drove. Her car wouldn’t start. With propane tanks exploding around them, they gave the woman a quick phone tutorial, got her car started, and fled together.

My associate pastor Heath was only blocks away from Sheryl. Heath had pounded on doors and windows to awaken his neighbors, and with me on the phone was bellowing at his neighbor to leave. She wouldn’t. Heath’s baby was in his car, and his wife had already fled with their two other children. My baby can’t help himself, but my neighbor can. We hung up, Heath got in his car, and drove off.

Dave drove a school bus. His wife Irene, at work in Chico, kept me posted as he loaded elderly people onto the bus, and then physically carried them off when they had to abandon it. They crowded into other cars nearby, and he rode on a guy’s tailgate all the way to Chico. Hayley and I were texting as she drove four patients stop-and-go through the flames. She called when they got to Chico, her account of their escape interspersed with reassurances to the four older people, scared and perplexed in dementia.

It is not good for us to live alone.

2. God gives us strength when we face death.

On the phone with Beth, she described flames towering over the road. The road was jammed, traffic at a standstill. It was dark as midnight. Beth had seen a 90-year-old lady plodding through the flames with her walker, and the lady was now in her car. Beth’s voice was profoundly frightened, but she was calm, even joking about forgetting to grab her toothbrush. I prayed with her, then called Louise, her roommate one car ahead.

One of our young mothers was driving with her children. Her voice shook as she described how flames had leaped over their car. Her husband was ahead of them, and they had already doubled back after their first route was consumed by fire. Inching toward the main road, she had to hang up because her husband was calling. Authorities would tell them to abandon their cars and run, then to get back in their cars and drive. An hour later, the mother mistakenly called me, unaware that I was on the line. She was talking with her children calmly about their home as they inched through the flames, the wind howling outside the car.

All these told me later that prayer with them in the middle of the crisis was crucial to remaining calm.

3. When there is no hope, God gives us his presence.

At 11:47 AM, my brother texted me that Lou was at the church office. Lou had gone to Chico early in the morning, and his wife Rita was stuck in Paradise without a car. When I arrived at the church, Lou’s grandson had returned from trying to get to her. Authorities turned him back.

Then Rita called the church, her cell phone battery nearly dead. The flames were three houses away. Lou told her to get into the shower, turn the water on, and stay there. He told her he loved her. The battery gave out.

After Lou called 911 to report her situation, several of us gathered around him to pray. When we were finished, Lou told us that he felt the Lord’s presence and peace in a way that he had not before. Weeping, he started to call their adult kids.

At 5:55 PM, my brother texted me again. Rita was safe and reunited with Lou in Chico. While in the shower, she had seen sunlight through the bathroom window. She changed into dry clothes and left the house. Two minutes after she started down the street, the windows blew out. Someone had then picked her up and taken her to the authorities. She told Lou that the Lord had been present with her through the whole ordeal.

With this news, we knew that all of our households had escaped Paradise with their lives. Praise God, none of these phone calls were in fact final.

4. When we face death, there is only time for what we know. There is no time for opinion, speculation, or positive thinking. We either know the one who triumphed over death or we don’t.

Facebook and Human Nature

After dark revelations about how we use Facebook and how it uses us, we want someone held accountable. We have shared lies packaged as news. The lies came from shadowy groups seeking power. Facebook sold our information to some of these groups, like Cambridge Analytica, that enable other groups to microtarget their lies. Facebook and these groups, we think, have harmed our institutions and civility.

The story provokes three theological observations about human nature.

First, we look away from the obvious. The facts we “learned” about Facebook after 2016 are only “revelations” in the sense that we finally looked at what we already knew. We knew that information on Facebook was sketchy. We knew that Facebook was using our private data. But after 2016, we decided to be shocked—shocked—at what we had been doing all those years.

Second, we shift blame away from ourselves. The bad guys in Russia did evil. I can’t be blamed for my own online behavior. I can’t help feeling passionate about my causes. So when I troll people, heaping abusive names on them like “crisis actor” or “bigot,” I’m just telling “the truth.” The truth is that I joined a mob, and it’s my own fault.

Third, we imagine that technology will fix us. The Facebook and Google founders surveyed the world from under their hoodies, sincerely believing that they were making a global community where human goodness could finally blossom. Instead, they created a smarter delivery system for toxicity, and were surprised when the system worked. Telling ourselves not to be evil is not enough.

What makes these observations theological? The issue of accountability.

Suppose a pure, neutral observer were watching all of us online. That observer would only need a few minutes to form a judgment. We are all guilty of self-deception about our actions. We all invent ways to reject accountability for ourselves and demand it for others.

The observer exists, and has been watching us a lot longer than a few minutes.

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The Hidden Debate: Privacy and the End of Life

by Matthew Raley

For the second time this year, California legislators aretrying to legalize assisted suicide. After the bill failed in June, Susan Eggman (D-Stockton) reintroduced it in a special session devoted to healthcare financing.

The bill was originally framed as a response to the suicide of Brittany Maynard, who moved to Oregon after her terminal cancer diagnosis because assisted suicide is illegal in California. An individual, supporters say, has the right to determine when his or her life ends as a purely private matter.

A debate is hidden behind this issue. What is privacy? Is there really a zone where your actions affect no one but yourself, and where no one has a right to “interfere?”

Advocates for the elderly and the disabled argue that assisted suicide is not a private matter. Legalizing it would create an incentive to promote suicide for the weakest patients, whose care is most expensive. They point to the sinister track record of Belgium, where the law first recognized a suicide right for adults under narrow circumstances, but now allows doctors to euthanize children. Not assist in their suicide. Euthanize. With their “consent,” of course.

What starts as an adult’s right to make “private” decisions morphs into something horrific.

The reason is that this supposed zone of privacy doesn’t exist. First, if I take my own life, I am not the only person affected. Suicide affects families, friends, colleagues, entire communities.

Second, this fraudulent privacy merely creates a space around the end of life in which probing questions are silenced. The elderly patient “requested” suicide. Done. Prescribe the pills. We will not question the role of a financially interested adult son, or a callous social worker, or an activist nurse pushing an agenda. We won’t consider those factors even though we know that medical decisions involve many participants, that patients can and do get manipulated, and that healthcare financing plays an increasingly powerful role in care.

Draw the curtain of “privacy” over that discussion, and you have euthanasia in Belgium. The same curtain hides families and boyfriends who bully pregnant women into having abortions. Until recently, it shielded Planned Parenthood’s sale of body parts.

Eggman’s bill will likely stall again. Resistance to fake privacy in California signals that we may still have the courage to defy the culture of death.