I was sitting on my terrace yesterday, trying to decide what to write about this week, and, at some point, I realized that, instead of coming up with some inspiring words for you, I had just spent the last five minutes daydreaming up a tornado response plan for my apartment building.
I had been looking out at the buildings of my Harlem neighborhood and imagining a tornado coming through and making them into piles of bricks and horror. And I was thinking that many of the people who may live in these apartments do not have tornado preparedness drilled into them as children.
They have never responded mechanically to a siren, walking single file out of a third grade classroom door into the hallway of their elementary school. They have never sat on their little child knees facing the wall, bent over into a tiny kid-sized ball, covering their little head with their little hands to protect their young brain matter from flying debris. Their teachers have never paced back and forth behind them to make sure they were given the best tools to survive if the skies opened and hell descended on earth.
Having grown up with this experience, if a tornado hit Central Harlem, I realized that it is quite possible that I would be the ranking tornado expert in my building. So, my daydreaming mind reasoned, in the event of a tornado, it would be my responsibility to get my neighbors to the safety of the basement. Should I go door to door? No, that would take too long. Should I print out signs for every floor instructing everyone to go to the basement? No, also too time consuming. I settled on a plan to work with the doorman on duty. We would cower behind the front desk, making phone calls to as many tenants as we could, starting with apartments containing children or elderly folks, trying to get as many people to the laundry room as possible before the lobby windows came smashing in and we lost phone contact.
When I woke up from this paranoid daydream, I realized just how traumatized I have been by tornadoes after growing up in Missouri, and how it all gets stirred up when I hear about tornadoes like the one that hit the Oklahoma City area on Monday. When I was a young child, a tornado passed right over the second story bedroom I was sleeping in, and it was so loud, I was convinced half the house had been torn away. In high school, my cousin's new husband was killed in the EF5 tornado that ravaged the Oklahoma City area in 1999. I remember going for the funeral and being instructed to wipe my skin in only one direction in the shower so that I wouldn't get stuck in my skin the tiny pieces of glass still floating around in the air from the destruction. In 2011, that deadly tornado hit Joplin, where one of my best friends is a math teacher. Her middle school building was OK, but Joplin High School was destroyed, and her entire community still reels from that day. I know she and her husband will be driving to Oklahoma City this week to help in the clean up. They know exactly how to do it.
Tornados affect me in a way they don't affect others. They release stress hormones in my body; I get a sudden urge to call Mom and formulate a safety plan. Many of the New Yorkers around me just don't feel it the way I do because they haven't lived it like I have.
At the United Methodist Church of the Village, where I pastor, we are working with a consultant to help us respond in healthy ways to conflict and disruptive behavior in our church community. She says that people are pretty easy to figure out. We all just want to feel safe and special. So when we get triggered by something that makes us feel unsafe, our bodies and minds harness all their energy to try to make us safe. So I hear about a tornado, and I call Mom and formulate tornado preparedness plans for my apartment building instead of working. Because I need to feel safe before I can even think about work or any other part of normal life.
I find it hard to say the word "safe" this week without thinking about the anti-gay hate crimes that have been occurring in our community this year, culminating in the shocking murder on Saturday of Mark Carson, a gay man, just a few blocks from our church. I have reacted strongly to these acts, but I know that, in this case, I am like the New Yorkers who have never been directly affected by tornadoes. I am upset by the tragedy, but I do not get the stress hormones running through my blood nor do I automatically begin forming safety plans. But many people I love do have those reactions because they are LGBT, and they have been the targets of anti-gay slurs, and they have felt the very real threat of violence, and they know it could have been them. And while we can't prevent tornadoes, we can prevent hate violence. So, especially for straight allies in this city, let us be aware that our neighbors do not feel safe, let us speak out against "casual" prejudice, let us teach our children better.
All people want is to feel safe and special. For those among us who may feel unsafe for any reason today, I offer these words from Psalm 91.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the LORD, "My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust..."
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day,
or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday...
Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place,
no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.
For she will command her angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways.
On their hands they will bear you up, so that you will not dash your foot against a stone...
Those who love me, I will deliver; I will protect those who know my name.
When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them.
With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.
(Psalm 91:1-2, 5-6, 9-12, 14-16)