On Tuesday evening, I was giving a presentation to a gathering of clergy from the Missouri Conference when a pastor reported a major earthquake in Haiti and asked for our prayers. The news of an earthquake when it comes without pictures or connections appears abstract, distant, removed.
The next morning, photo images and news reports brought into sharper focus the sights and sounds of suffering, searching, death, grief, miracle, and recovery. The earthquake became more real and immediate to everyone. Such events stimulate the highest instincts of compassion in all of us as individuals, churches, agencies, and nations began to respond. No longer abstract. Real people. Time to act.
Also on that day, news came that three United Methodist leaders were missing, including the director of our own UMCOR relief agency, Sam Dixon. Also missing were Jim Gulley, a consultant and long-time mission worker, and Clint Rabb, director of Mission Volunteers. Clint is an old friend of mine, a colleague from my home conference, and one of a circle of clergy friends with whom I go camping and hiking each spring. He and I were planning to be together ninety days from now with our friends in West Texas for retreat, fun, support, and renewal. The fact that no one had yet heard from these persons 24 hours after an earthquake was concerning, but not yet alarming given the communications challenges. But the tragedy was now personal for me; it had a face, a name, a connection. It touched someone I had walked alongside, with whom I had shared meals, cut vegetables, groaned at bad jokes, and washed dishes. Clint and I were not best buddies, but many of my closest friends are Clint’s closest friends. This was family.
Two days after the earthquake, the UMCOR people were still missing. Now the mood among my colleagues and friends was turning somber. Personal grief and hourly support were expressed by text, phone, email. We were praying, hungry for information, hopeful yet realistic.
Late Thursday night came news of rescue, recovery, transport to the embassy. We were lifted by joy. By Friday morning the elation was broken by more news of people still trapped. Reports varied; contradictions multiplied. MSNBC ran video clips of Clint still trapped in the rubble. Seeing my friend suffering on a national television show that ended with the commentator saying that Clint would not walk again moved the entire event into the surreal. Viewing Clint was both connecting and alienating, intimate and intrusive, emotionally powerful and infuriating. Abstract no longer, the earthquake and its aftermath became all-consuming, the central focus of my prayers and hopes.
Saturday word came of Sam Dixon’s death, and of Clint’s transport to a Florida hospital in critical condition. Emotions of profound loss mixed with a sense of renewed hope. On Sunday a brief mid-morning text message told me of Clint’s death, and pushed me into the sad cycle of contacting friends and colleagues with the news.
Clint was a husband, father, grandfather, brother, colleague, co-worker, friend, minister. In my mind’s eye, I see his life as the center of concentric circles spreading out in all directions, as part of a network of kinships and relationships and friendships and work partnerships that extend literally around the world. None of us can fathom the many lives he touched directly and indirectly through his life and work. Nor can we comprehend how many people are impacted by his death.
The point of this reflection is not merely about Clint, but about the immensity of the tragedy in Haiti. When we hear numbers such as 50,000-100,000 dead or three million displaced, it’s hard to fathom that every single one was a brother, sister, friend, neighbor, co-worker, mother, father, son, daughter, spouse. Each person is set in the center of kinships, relationships, and friendships that span across the community and each life interconnects with the lives of countless others.
By the grace of God, our lives intermingle. We are interwoven and intertwined such that every death and displacement, every grief and suffering has a face, a name, a connection to someone. When we realize that each number represents a soul full of sweet memories, deep hopes, and unrealized dreams just like those we share with our friends, then we know we are ultimately one. Ultimately people are not isolated egos, separate and self-contained, capable only of self-preservation. We do not live in separate universes, each to his own. We are one; we belong to one body. I belong to you and you belong to me because we both belong to Christ. You are my sister or brother and I am yours because God gives both of us life and loves both of us completely. “We do not live to ourselves,” Paul writes, “and we do not die to ourselves. ” (Romans 14:7) When we perceive that reality, we can do no other than try to help when one of us suffers.
A strength of Volunteers in Mission, of forming partnerships with congregations across the globe, and of other connectional experiences is that they cause us to see the faces and know the names behind the numbers. Clint and Sam knew this, and that’s what they dedicated their lives to. When, by the grace of God, our lives intermingle, no suffering remains distant or abstract. They become part of us and we become part of them. Family. One through the eyes of Christ. Clint and Sam realized this truth and they lived the connection. That’s why they were in Haiti on our behalf even before the earthquake struck. They were bridge people, casting threads of grace across the chasms of culture and nationality. By their lives and with their deaths, they remind us that “If one member suffers, all suffer together…"(I Cor. 12: 26)
Give thanks to God with me for their lives even as we mourn their deaths, and join me in praying for the people of Haiti, and for all those who reach out to help.
Yours in Christ,