Disaster Resource Team member Fred Meade has been called by the Red Cross once again, this time to provide spiritual care to Hurricane Irma victims in Florida. His daily reflections follow. Check back for regular updates.
I’ve been back now for about 5 days. Thank you to all the folks at Super Saturday who made such loving and supportive comments about my work and my writing about being a chaplain after a natural disaster.
In the last few days, I have found it difficult to transition back to normal life. It has been well documented that those who choose to serve in a disaster area have deeply meaningful experiences that can potentially change one’s definition of self. There clearly is a period of limbo between getting on the plane home and the moment when “stories told by survivors” are no longer at the front of one’s consciousness. That transition manifests like a withdrawal from drug addiction. Many, including myself, can’t wait to go back and do more “good works.” I have heard this from many different types of volunteers, including clergy and mental health workers. In the practice of intense disaster chaplaincy, we do get biologically high from the work we do. Our brains produce chemicals that make us feel good. But like any chemically-based high, there is a time of withdrawal while we are in limbo. That begins after the airplane lands in one's home state.
Last Saturday someone asked, who debriefs me after I get back home? In other words, who takes care of the caretaker? I immediately said “Jim Tilbe”, who is the chief fire chaplain in Massachusetts. The truth is, like dealing with grief, it takes time. It's not as if you take a debriefing pill and life is back to normal. It normally takes me about a month to stop thinking about what I have seen and heard. I have actually found that writing helps to put my heart and head back where it should be. My freshman English teacher would be rolling over in the grave if she knew that!
So why is this work so difficult? One of a myriad of issues is that, while working in an environment of deep suffering, caregivers can potentially be opened up to our own demons. In an authentic act of compassion we feel what other people feel. On more than one occasion, my eyes have welled up with tears having heard stories of loss. And because of that experience of hearing about suffering, we suffer. That often is the price caregivers pay when we practice the art of compassion.
That heartfelt response can potentially, whether consciously or not, cause us to reach out to God in new ways. And that is why authentic presence in the midst of deep suffering can change the way we view and understand life. To continue to lead a spiritual life with integrity after witnessing deep suffering, we either become more connected to God or become spiritually numb.
In many ways, disaster spiritual care is easier to do than pastoral care in a church. People living in shelters are hungry for authentic human contact that can potentially lead them to be more hopeful. Blessed are the hungry, for they shall be fed. We can only hope and pray that gets communicated in the institutional church.
I found out this afternoon that this will be my last day of deployment in Fort Myers Florida. It turns out that I am leaving two days earlier than I had signed up for It turns out that there just isn’t the need for the number of chaplains we have in Fort Myers. One thing is for certain: One never knows what is actually going to happen day to day. I have heard on the same day that we are opening shelters and we are closing shelters. Situations do change and for those of us doing chaplaincy, flexibility is the key to mental health and, I might add, survival.
It is now two in the afternoon and I can feel my body slowing down. As an introvert, I do have to ramp up to do chaplaincy. But I know that I can only do it for so long. I will sleep well tonight. I do feel blessed, however, knowing that our spiritual care group here in Fort Myers was able to alleviate some suffering. And for that I am grateful.
This may be my last blog on this deployment, however I may add one more two weeks from now unless I am on another deployment. One thing is for sure, I do have job security; more disasters will come, and more people need to be reminded and be re-reminded of the presence of hope in this world.
I’ve been here a little over a week, and today I had a chance to go home early. I’m expecting to fly out on Thursday, but in some ways Christmas came early this October.
It’s Sunday, so I decided to go to church this morning. I actually felt very refreshed after having taking Saturday off. I was excited about going to church where I didn’t have to preach. However, what happened I surely did not expect.
I know we talk a lot about extravagant welcome in our denomination. At Fort Meyers UCC it was a central theme from the moment I walked in until after the benediction. They walk the walk of hope.
Perhaps today I needed church more than I realized. Even though I felt pretty good, some part of me had possibly been holding on to some despair. As I have said before, it’s not easy hearing story upon story of the trauma and destruction that Irma brought. But what I do know is that winds of my internal chaos were transformed into hope by my experience of “church” this morning.
I didn’t stay for coffee hour as I had to return to doing shelter chaplaincy. The first woman I spoke with did not know where she was going to go after the shelter closed. All I did was listen and non-verbally pray for her as her story unfolded.
Yes, there was more light in her eyes after I left; however it still was a disturbing conversation. Jesus did say that the poor will always be with us and the reason why the man was born blind was “so the works of God might be made manifest in him.” Still, knowing this woman will be back on the street and there is nothing I can do about it, is frustrating. I’m sure that this won’t be the last time this happens in my life.
It is a reminder to me of the importance of going to church. For me, the Church is my home, “where hope springs eternal.” And that is why I got to go home early today.
Well, my day off has finally arrived. Providing disaster spiritual care is not physically difficult. In general I set my own pace and take breaks when I need to. There is always food around, mostly of the carbohydrate type. Most of the day is spent working in shelters talking to people who are on their cots or are eating in some sort of cafeteria.
I’ve gotten to the point in my own spiritual life where I understand that disasters happen. God and I are OK on that one. That does not mean that I don’t experience stress when I talk with people. I am able to set aside my internal response in the moment of listening to the trauma survivors, however it does take its toll. I have known this my whole life.
In the 34 years I served as an ordained pastor I gained 60 pounds. I don’t think I’m alone, statistically speaking. And if truth be told, every time I go to yet another seminar related to this work, the room is filled with people who simply don’t take care of themselves. There are a lot of reasons that we can speculate about that phenomenon but the only question that matters is, “Why don’t I take better care of myself?”
Today I have gone swimming and spent some time in a hot tub. My hope this afternoon is to continue my practice of zazen. Forty minutes of meditation is wonderful for knitting my body, mind, and emotions back together again.
Slowly the weight is coming off, and for that I am grateful. It is a paradoxical phenomenon that ordained ministry for me was so difficult in terms of maintaining a healthy spiritual life. But again I don’t think I’m alone in that.
I have learned a lot of life lessons through the practice of ordained ministry. At least for now I’m happy that I’m retired and can goof off while hopping around the country doing chaplaincy work. How long I’m going to be doing this I don’t know. But I do know, especially at my age, that self-care is a top priority.
Today I spent eight hours passing out food and water in a very devastated area of the Everglades in Florida. The area reminded me so much of what New Orleans looked like after Katrina. I’ve seen a lot of physical destruction in my life because of natural disaster. And because of that, I didn’t think it would bother me. What I realized was that seeing it did not upset me but smelling it was a whole other issue.
It’s not that I had any kind of emotional break down. Because I didn’t. However I was reminded of the suffering that happened after Katrina because of the smell. There’s something about the smell of moldy sheet rock and construction debris that takes me back to 2005. I suppose if there’s anything I can learn from this, it's that I am human and smells matter.
When I was going from neighborhood to neighborhood passing out food and water, I noticed that the adults coming to the truck had this same look on their faces that I saw and still do see when children run to an ice cream truck. Quite honestly the food that we were passing out was reasonably mediocre. Water is water and needed for survival. But I think the real reason why people were coming to the truck every day was simply to see a smiling face, someone who said, “How are you today? Would you like a sandwich and something to drink?” It was an amazing interaction to watch.
It was and is simple human interaction that fed both the giver and receiver of the food. That caring went both ways. I don’t think I have been thanked more times in my whole life than I have in this last week. Perhaps if we as a culture could do more where the end result produced a spirit of Thanksgiving we just might see major cultural changes for the better in our nation.
Just a thought from someone who definitely needs to take a shower and to smell different smells.
I don’t know if you can tell but there is an alligator in the pond. That pond is behind the Red Cross headquarters. After I parked my car this afternoon, I noticed two ladies staring out over the pond with their iPhones out, taking pictures. So, being the jokester, I said, “you know there’s a gator out there", not knowing that there actually was. So they surprised me and said "yeah, we’re taking pictures right now". It took me a while to focus to finally see the probably 6-foot gator. It was hidden. But it was there ... lurking.
As I mentioned in my last post, I went out to a movie theater last night just to get away from thinking about this particular disaster. I was so excited to have some downtime where no one knew me and I wasn’t in my Red Cross vest. When I got into the theater and bought popcorn and a Diet Coke I was ready to move into a state of Nirvana. And for a long time it was very relaxing. The next morning I got up a little groggy and tried to find a decent restaurant for breakfast. None were close by so I ended up going to McDonald’s. By 11:00 I was dragging and having a hard time focusing. This is pretty unusual for me so I was wondering what was going on, and then all of a sudden I realized what an idiot I was. I had forgotten to eat dinner last night (popcorn does not constitute dinner) and the trip to the golden arches for breakfast was simply not enough.
Now I say this in the context that I teach self care for disaster chaplains: I don’t know how many times I’ve said, you have to take care of yourself so that you can effectively take care of others. Neglecting self-care is the hidden alligator in the pond ready to pounce on us if we don’t do what we need to do to stay physically, emotionally, and spiritually healthy.
So it’s 4:00 now and I’m gonna take a nap and then get up and have a nice dinner. Perhaps tomorrow I will be more focused. However, today I have been reminded that the alligator is just around the corner.
I went to yet another action movie last night. And yes, the world was saved yet another time. I grew up, like many of my generation, reading comics where good versus evil played out in sacred text produced by Marvel or DC comics.
If I am honest, those 12 cent documents played a role in my formation. No, I don’t list that on my church profile, but the idea that one person can make a difference has stayed with me throughout my 30 plus years of ministry.
In the movies, there is often a scene where the superhero very quickly changes from street clothes to the superhero outfit. It’s an exciting moment in the narrative, because you know good is going to overcome evil. That’s why I’m out there in the disaster field listening to stories of pain and suffering. One person can make a difference. The whole world is not getting saved, but for person who has been traumatized by the disaster, their world is a little more comfortable in that moment of time.
Some aspects of the good old days were actually good. On any given day, there were plenty of kids around to play football, basketball or baseball. Parents did not worry about kids being outside. As children, we knew how to play in the sandbox together. There was only one goal and that goal was shared by everyone. Simply put, it was to have fun and experience the joy that life offers.
Even in the midst of the difficult disaster work that I do, I still carry that idea in my heart. I love working with others whose desire it is to reduce human suffering, but at the same do it with joy in one’s heart. That feeling, in many ways, is hard to describe. It’s not the joy expressed at a birthday party or a graduation ceremony. It’s different. It is a feeling that in many ways transcends culture. In some ways it is a combination of joy, peace and gratitude mediated by compassion.
Yesterday I was doing spiritual care at a center where some people were waiting 3+ hours in the Florida sun. My job was to pass out water and make conversation. Many people there did not speak English. Some were from Haiti, Mexico, or Honduras. And I don’t speak Spanish. However there was a particular look of both joy and gratitude that passed simultaneously between myself and others when I passed out water. And, interestingly enough, it is the same look I used to get during a baptism when I walked around a church holding an infant while talking abut the meaning of baptism. There is a particular light that emanates from the eyes of those in the congregation that is so similar to my experience of passing out water. Joy in service.
It’s been a long time since I was a kid coming home, mud-covered, from an amazing football game. As a child I always slept well after such games. I feel the same way today because I have played well with others in providing spiritual care. Tonight I will sleep well.
Today’s treasures become tomorrow's landfill, especially after a disaster. Today I passed out little Mickey Mouse stuffed animals; some day, Mickey will be in the landfill as well. (I would have also passed out Minnie Mouses as well but we did not have any.) My job today as a chaplain was to stand in line with parents who were waiting 3+ hours in the hot Florida sun to find out if the Red Cross could help them. It was remarkable to see the moment of joy on their children’s faces when they got Mickey and then when they gave Mickey a big hug. One little girl even tried to give Mickey a drink out of her water bottle.
Contrast that Mickey with the hundreds of piles of stuff outside of homes in the area that had been flooded. It’s not just stuff. It looks like just stuff, but it is not. It is the memories attached to that stuff which often give rise to significant grieving.
Shortly after Katrina, one man who was part of a UCC church volunteer group that was gutting a home said, “One of the hardest things I had to do on this mission trip was to shovel out a plaster hand print probably made in pre-school and then wheelbarrow it to the street and dump it with all the other sheetrock and garbage."
I have heard good church folk say it is only stuff. And I admit I have thought that as well at times. What I do know is that as people of faith it is not up to us to judge. But maybe we can learn a lesson here. What do we turn to when stress happens? Stuff (some version of Mickey)? Or do we attempt to connect with God in the midst of loss? Hmm… I’ll have to honestly think about that one.
It’s amazing to me the freedom that one has when you practice compassionate non-anxious presence. In disaster work we meet a whole range of people from different socio-economic backgrounds. Simple presence is often a hall pass into their unfolding stories. Once someone realizes that you are a chaplain, the normal “should I trust you…” issues seem to be non-existent. Rivers of tears do flow. Even when there is a language barrier, often the translator will say “Will you please pray for us?” So far every person I have prayed with knows and understands the word “Amen.”
As I give to others I very often experience a deep and profound sense of gratitude by others. I don’t hold on to that because it is not about me. Spiritual care is always about pointing to God - more often than not, non-verbally. As a spiritual care provider we are simply symbols on God’s presence on this earth.
However, in order to practice the art of being fully present, you have to fully embrace the often used phrase “it’s not about me.” Because it’s not about us. It’s all about the people we serve. In spiritual care, once we fully accept that it is "not about me", there is both freedom and joy in the journey. But it is not always easy.
Last night I had to laugh at myself when I discovered I was to sleep on couch that turns into a bed. God has a sense of humor and I was reminded yet again, “it’s not about me.” However I am looking forward to my bed at home when I get back!
It’s very different doing disaster spiritual care a month after a disaster happens. Actually, after about a week, people who have been affected begin to accept their lot in life. It’s not that they’re not still traumatized. But in fact they’ve come to realize that their life has changed. Typically people either accept what has happened or they complain about what has happened.
You would think that it has something to do with what was lost but it’s not. Over the years I worked with hundreds of people who have been traumatized by natural disaster and I can honestly say that those who accept what has happened heal far more quickly and are able to get on with their lives. And for people who constantly complain...we need to keep them in our prayer life.
I believe that accepting what is, is the starting point of the spiritual life for all of us.
Well I am back on the road again - this time to Florida - to do spiritual care for the Red Cross. For whatever reason, last night I was filled with both fear and anxiety once I got my marching orders. Perhaps for good reason; so I had to do an internal spiritual check to see if I was ready to spend two weeks focusing on the needs of others who have been traumatized by yet another natural disaster.
The good news is that fear helped me to focus. This time, I don’t think that I forgot anything that I would need on this deployment. But more important than the stuff I packed was the time spent doing a silent meditation. After 35 minutes I was finally able to come to a place of peace.
Doing spiritual care on a disaster scene is not easy. We see people during some of the worst days of their lives. The work is very rewarding but it is also draining. So perhaps fear leading to prayer and meditation on the day before I deployed is a good thing. I know one thing for sure, and that is that I am very grateful for my God who comes to calm my internal storms.
Rev. Fred Meade got involved in disaster work while serving a UCC Church in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. He is a member and former Chair of the MACUCC Disaster Resource & Response Team.