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.

Speeches from the Land

In July of 1987, an old English lady drove me around the Oxford countryside. While we curved through the greenest hills I’d ever seen, she told me stories about the region, spinning the elegant sentences that come from a lifetime of hearing Shakespeare. I was 16 and serving on a team at her thriving church in Didcot. She slowed between hedgerows and bumped across a stone bridge over a creek, interrupting her story to say, “That was the Thames.”

She enjoyed my shocked expression. She knew that the Thames in my mind was the mighty river flowing by Parliament in London, not the brook we’d just crossed.

Landscape talks to us—sometimes even making jokes.

I asked her about World War II, when she had been a child in this valley. Though London was more than fifty miles away, she said that the German bombs pounding the city at night rattled the window panes of her bedroom. Imagine falling asleep to the vibrations of bombs. Her own home would have spoken about violence ever after with each rattle of glass.

The English landscape has reminders of the war everywhere. I stood in the ruin of Coventry Cathedral later that summer, preserved in its shattered state as a memorial to the German air raids. Tall shards of stone with grass growing in their midst are all that remain of a house of worship. It is a new holy place, where a crowd of people will not make any noise. Dealey Plaza in Dallas, TX, where John Kennedy was shot, is another place shrouded in silence, even though life goes on around it.

Paradise, CA, devastated by the Camp Fire on November 8th, is often compared to a war zone. When my wife and I finally drove through it a month ago, the abandoned, burned out cars had been removed, the power lines repaired, and litter from the flight of 20,000 people replaced with signs saying, “Paradise Strong.” But the impact remained searing.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by  Cal OES -NC 2.0.

“Camp Fire Aftermath” (December 18, 2018). CC by Cal OES-NC 2.0.

The buildings were carved open, their insides lying in tangled heaps. Metal pipes, awnings, and gutters were twisted like broken limbs. Surprising views across the hills had been blasted through walls and trees. Those trees had created the town’s feeling of shelter as if covering the inhabitants with hands, but the place now feels exposed. Off the streets where our friends had been trapped amid flames by traffic, there were neat rows of flattened mobile homes, looking like beds in a ward.

The very dirt speaks as it rides away from town in hundreds of trucks every day. Six inches of topsoil will be scraped off the ridge because it is contaminated by burned pollutants. There are deeper problems too. The entire town was on septic systems. I recently heard about a septic tank made of plastic that melted underground, its toxic contents seeping out. The business that owns it still stands, and might be open if it weren’t for the contamination. There are questions about reservoirs and aquifers. What do they say about this fire?

The land of America’s west has always talked about possibilities. It has never been like the land in Europe, or even the eastern U.S., which holds ruins and battlefields and graves to tell us about tragedies that overwhelmed human achievements. In our part of California, the land is teaching us a moral reality that is older than climate change, and more pertinent. All that we attain in this world is temporary.

But there is another message from the land. Grass appeared when much-needed rain came after the fire—in doses somewhat too large. Driving south only weeks after the hills were charred, I was amazed to see them green. In Paradise itself, the grass covers the burn scar, as if holding a balm on the soil, the pipes, and the blackened bricks. Life grows inside the ruin, and overflows beyond it.

The land will preach to us for many years that the world is fallen, groaning with expectation for a permanent life. And so the land will also preach hope.