This scene from Hotel Rwanda keeps coming back to me. I thought about it after Katrina and after Haiti and after Sandy Hook and I’m thinking about it today after Moore, OK was devastated by tornadoes.
To set the scene, Don Cheadle’s character, Paul Rusesabagina, has turned his hotel into a safe haven in the middle of the Rwandan Genocide. Here he is talking with a video journalist (played by Joaquin Phoenix). Talking about his footage airing on the nightly news, Cheadle says, “It is the only chance we have that people might intervene.”
And then those chilling words from the journalist:
“They’ll say ‘O my God, that’s horrible.’ and then go on eating their dinners.’”
It’s that moment when this movie, this piece of entertainment, reaches out from the screen, grabs me by the collar and whispers in my ear, “That’s you.”
And if that was true in 1994, when there were only 3 major cable news channels (no Fox News, no MSNBC, no Weather Channel) the words sting that much more today. Not only do we have dozens of options to digest disasters on our TVs, but we have an infinite number of sources online, updating at the speed of light. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet of news.
This is what we do after a tragedy. We eat it up. We obsess over death totals. We watch videos and look at pictures and gasp and maybe get a little choked up. But what do we do with that information?
Usually, we say “O my God, that’s horrible,” update our Facebook status to say we’re praying for them, and then we check our email or watch funny videos on YouTube.
Well, that’s putting it a little too harshly. We do make donations, but often we’re doing it for our needs and not for theirs. Take Sandy Hook, for example. Not long after the shootings, they had to tell people to stop sending donations. “Newtown, Conn., was so inundated with teddy bears and other donations after [the] school shootings that it asked people to please stop sending gifts.”
I guess this is why I hate watching news channels after a disaster like yesterday’s in Moore, Oklahoma. Not because the news is inherently wrong, but because I’m too chicken to do anything about it. I block it out not because I’m taking the high road, but the low.
So I have to defer to experts on what we should do. It is not my job to decide what the people of Moore, Oklahoma should need today. I have no idea. The Red Cross has started monitoring social media to find people who say they’re coming to give relief. They’ll check with them to see if they really know what they’re doing, for instance, if they have gathered the right supplies to donate.
I’m a big fan of Week of Compassion (disclosure: I am a Disciples of Christ minister and this is our relief arm). I trust the work they do and so I listen when they tell me how to respond immediately: PRAY, PAY AND STAY.
PRAY Despite my snide comment about Facebook, prayer is one of the most powerful ways we can respond, that is, if you believe there is a God who listens. In the face of some evidence to the contrary, I do believe that… strongly, and that is why I pray. I would challenge all of us to pray without boasting about it on Facebook or Twitter. We don’t pray to impress our friends with our sympathy and faithfulness, we pray so that God will know we care for brothers and sisters we’ve never met.
PAY I was once approached on the street by a guy looking for a place to stay. I declined physical help, but told him that I would pray for him. “Thanks, but prayer doesn’t put a roof over my head.” My initial reaction was, “Well, it could…” But deep inside I knew he was right. If we’re going to pray, we have to be ready to be used in answering that prayer. And when the disaster strikes, the only meaningful help I can offer is money. So I give it to people who know better how to use it than I do.
STAY As Week of Compassion says on its website, “the time for volunteers will come, but it is not today.” What I love most about WoC is not that they tell me to stay home, but that after a disaster strikes, and after the immediate response teams leave, they stay. This is perhaps the most important and hardest thing to do in a world that operates between commercial breaks: to remember. A group of folks close by go to Haiti every year. Some were going before the earthquake, and now they’ve decided they will never forget those people, so they return year after year. Hundreds of Youth went to Joplin, MO last summer to help relief efforts there, more than a year after the tornado struck.
When we digest all this news, let’s all ask ourselves why we’re doing this and what are we doing with this information. Instead of just going on and eating our dinners, maybe we’ll say, “O God, O God, O God… use me, however you can, to help your children.”