Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what is possible; soon you are doing the impossible. – St. Francis of Assisi
I used that quote in my last post referring to the impact an everyday person can have regarding problems that appear too big to do anything about. Sometimes, instead of global issues, the problem can be as simple – and as daunting – as helping neighbors down the street.
Over the weekend a parishioner’s house burned down. The cause is unknown. I was in the house eating some leftover pizza when the phone call came in from Dr. Carol, a missionary doctor who serves the local community via the health clinic across the street from us. I relayed the message to Fr. Sam, and we jumped into a car and arrived 90 seconds late. By the time we had arrived, local firefighters had extinguished 99 percent of the blaze. A spectacle like this always draws people in and this was no different. As we approached, neighbors leisurely walked to the scene to join a throng of neighbors that had amassed. Everyone stood silently watching, wanting to do something while unable to do anything.
Fortunately, the family of eight was safe, including their baby. But they lost everything. They now huddled together, some of them crying in agony and fear. An elderly woman sat in a doorway repeatedly crying, “God, give me the strength.” The family lived in a pre-fabricated house provided by Food for the Poor. Normally these donated homes measure 12 x 12 feet. Because of the family’s size, they lived in a larger version of the house, which was simply two units joined together. They and all their belongings sat inside of less than 600 square feet atop a concrete slab base. It sat close to two other small houses made of concrete. During the fire, neighbors rushed to help the family save whatever they could, but the fire moved quickly. Anything left had been turned to ash. Too poor to open a bank account, they kept their money in a locked space within the house. That too was gone. A refrigerator was one of the few recognizable items left. During the fire, its sides peeled away like a banana and curled towards the floor. What remained looked like a piece of apocalyptic artwork. A bed and a dresser were somewhat salvaged – the former charred and letting off white smoke, the latter contorted from the combination fire and water.
I felt completely overwhelmed and useless as my eyes scanned the scene. A gust of wind came up the mountainside and forced the smoke over us like a blanket. I turned my head as I covered my mouth and nose with my t-shirt and my eyes immediately met those of a three-year old girl crouched and urinating over a plant. She looked at me as if absolutely nothing about this situation was strange, and then ran off to continue playing with her friends. It all seemed so absurd. I haven’t been sleeping well lately and began thinking that maybe this was some bizarre dream. I picked up a small stick and dug it into my forearm to check. Nope. This was real.
Having done all he could do to help in that moment, Fr. Sam collected me and we drove back to the compound. “So now what?” I asked him.
“Well, we’ll have an emergency meeting with some people tomorrow and see if we can ease their suffering. We’ll try and get some money together for them, see if we can get some clothes donated and beg for some housing from someone.”
In other words, start by doing what’s necessary.
“And that’s just how it goes?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said plainly. “We do what we can.”
The entire episode has me thinking in big picture terms. (That is, after all, what this blog is about.) One of my students recently asked me why I threw all of my stuff away back home to come and teach here. I obviously did not do that. My entire life currently sits in a 9 x 9 foot spare bedroom of my uncle’s house. But what if I were to lose that? What if I woke up tomorrow with absolutely nothing but the two suitcases I brought with me, and had no credit cards or store of money? Cast that way, this experiment of mine – to find a higher and better use of my talents – simultaneously takes on a sense of urgency and of being a luxury or hobby, as if this experience needed one more binary opposite. Since quitting my job I have learned that the process requires sitting with:
The need for action and letting the process unfold,
Being a rookie to find something at which I can excel, and
Understanding that what is specific is general to most.
Which brings me back to the beginning: Doing what’s necessary to help a family that just lost everything in order to do what appears to be the impossible task of getting them back on their feet.