Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Shelter from the Storm

(A picture taken by Bruce Hundley of downtown Stillwater after yesterday's storm--which swept through like a brief but damaging hurricane)

It took very little time for the temperature to plummet from 106˚ F to 79˚ F. We were driving in the minivan when it hit. When I saw the force of the wind I gunned the engine to get off the tree-lined street we were on and onto a main road. The children, strapped into their car seats in the back, stared wide-eyed out the windows. The sky ahead of us was still blue, but behind us it was black, and it was roiling over us. I looked in the rearview mirror and saw lightning tear the sky in two.

“Were they predicting storms today?” my wife asked. I shrugged my ignorance, and she began urgently tapping the keys of her Blackberry to try to find a weather update.

We could be forgiven for not paying attention. For weeks now the weather had been the same: blistering heat and sun, temperatures approaching or topping 110 most days. And then, on Thursday, our air conditioning had finally groaned and shuddered to a stop. The repair crews were overworked and, because of the back log, couldn’t get to our house until Monday.

We boarded the dogs, carried the fish tank to the neighbors, and—since we had overnight guests—rented a hotel suite that could accommodate seven people. The next day, after our guests left, we moved in with my wife’s cousins.

When Monday finally arrived all we could think about was getting the AC fixed and getting settled back into our own house and our own routine. My wife’s cousins are wonderful people, and we enjoyed our unexpected long weekend with them. But it was time to be home.

The day was spent in a holding pattern, waiting for the AC people to call. An urgent conversation with our home warranty company, just before 5 PM, finally rustled up the repair crew, who declared our air conditioner operational again just before 6. We didn’t think to check the weather before deciding to run back to our relatives’ house, pick up our things, and then stop somewhere for dinner before heading home.

As we got into the van I noticed the dark skies—but they were to the north, and since I’m used to thinking of dangerous Oklahoma storms as moving towards the northeast, I imagined the storm would miss us. I felt a twinge of regret. We badly needed the rain.

We had managed to load our overnight bags into the car and start down the tree-lined lane before the wind really picked up. We’d made it out from under the trees before it became truly frightening (winds upwards of 80 miles an hour, according to this morning’s newspaper report).

We could see the dark streaks of torrential rain off to our left, but where we were it was still just spitting. The surging storm quickly consumed the last bits of blue sky. I thought at first it was hail that was beating on the car, but it was wind-blown debris. My son said something about a tornado, but my wife quickly assured him that it wasn’t the season for it.

But I could see the worry in her eyes. It may not have been a tornado, but the straight-line winds were dangerously tearing at every tree and pole that lined the street to our left.

Suddenly, most of a tree broke loose and blew across the road ahead of us. I slowed down and maneuvered around it. A minute later a lightning bolt struck a power line next to our van.

“There’s a church!” my wife gestured to our right. “Pull into the parking lot behind it.” Another bolt of lightning hit a field across the street, immediately sparking a fire in the parched grass.

It was a large church building, and there were a number of cars in the spacious lot—so we knew there were people there. I pulled up to the covered drive by the front entrance. My wife and kids jumped out and ran for the doors, but they were locked. They immediately turned and ran the length of the building, looking for an open door. As I turned the van around I saw a gust of wind bodily lift my son off the pavement. My wife clung to his arm and clutched my daughter to her breast. Then they disappeared into a doorway.

I parked the car and for a moment wondered whether it was safer to stay where I was. But my family was inside, and the large open lot didn’t threaten much in the way of blowing debris. So I ran for it. The door opened for me, and I was in.

I saw my family sitting in the hallway. My daughter was clinging to my wife, who was whispering soothing words. “Safe now, safe now.”

My son stared up the hallway towards a bank of windows, which offered a clear view of the storm. We watched as the rain finally hit, torrents beating down. “What’s that coming off the roof?” my son asked.

I looked at the sheets of white that were blasted off the roof by the wind. “That’s water,” I said.

“It’s like a waterfall!”

I became aware of others. A solidly-built older man with a cross on his t-shirt clapped my shoulder and offered words of welcome. And then a white-haired woman was leading me by the hand, saying something about all the food that was still left, asking if we’d eaten any dinner. I could feel the pressure of her warm fingers, the gentle tug.

A middle-aged man with a developmental disability came up to me and asked me how I was. When I said I was fine he smiled and wandered away. We were in a fellowship hall, with old 1950’s album covers propped at each of a dozen round tables. Older women began fussing over us. Our plates were soon heaped with casseroles and macaroni and three bean salad. “There’s homemade ice cream over there,” someone told me. “Be sure you try some of that!”

The storm continued to rage outside, but it didn’t take long for the kids to care more about the table full of desserts. And then the gathering began to move to a different part of the hall. Chairs had been set up in rows facing a low stage, where a grey bearded man was settling himself behind a keyboard. He’d used hair gel to pull his bangs into what I thought of as a “Sha Na Na” point.

Someone at an adjacent table said something to me which I couldn’t understand. I looked up. A heavy young man with slightly slurred speech asked me again whether I wanted a song sheet. I shook my head. “Maybe when I’m finished eating.”

But soon my family was sitting in the back row, singing “Ain’t That Ashame” and “Blue Suede Shoes.” The old woman who’d led me by the hand was trying to get someone to dance.

The place was called Countryside Baptist Church, and I have no doubt they embrace a theology that's far more conservative than mine. Many of their beliefs—about hell, about homosexuality—are ones I’d likely call harmful. But in this moment what they offered was hospitality, and shelter from the storm. There were no conditions placed on their welcome, no theological litmus test my family needed to pass before we could pass through their doors. They saw our need and they took us in.

And if we’d been two gay men, fresh from our honeymoon in Niagara Falls, I have no doubt they would’ve done the same thing. The doors would have opened. Had we been a Muslim family I’m convinced the welcome would have been just as immediate.

In either of those cases, at some point, someone might have felt the need to evangelize, to try to “save” a lost soul. The welcome would, then, have become infected with a thread of condescension: You aren’t like us, and your otherness makes you incomplete. To be whole you must become like us. Even if the words were never spoken, the guests might have sensed them in furtive glances.

But this impulse—this urge to draw dividing lines in the dirt (and then invite those on the far side to cross over)—wouldn’t have come immediately. For some it wouldn’t have come at all, and for others it would have felt out of place in the face of the original impulse to open the door. And for those who might have actually spoken the words—you are other; you need to change—it would have been out of duty, a duty born of doctrine.

The impulse to open the door was born out of something deeper than that—a force of solidarity and empathy that, while expressed in Christian doctrine, is experienced as far more than just a teaching.

But this is not to say that for the people at Countryside Baptist Church last night, their status as a Christian community played no role in motivating their unqualified hospitality. While I have no doubt that this force of love is at work in human beings across every ideological and religious divide; while I know that atheists open doors to those in need, and that what motivates them is the same immediate sense of care and solidarity in a world of troubles—while all of this is true, I also believe that the community of spiritually united people that Christianity calls the Church has the capacity to nurture this force of love.

If one runs to a private home, the welcome is always less certain—the impulse for hospitality at odds with fears about security and privacy. If we’d pulled up in front of the local country club, we’d have likely enjoyed a grudging welcome in the entry hall. Had we waited out the storm in a fast food restaurant, we’d have enjoyed the same canned welcome one typically receives, and the same invitation to order off the menu.

But here were people gathered, explicitly, in the House of the Lord. They were gathered for “50’s Night” rather than for a Bible study or prayer meeting, but that made no difference. By coming together within these walls they had put on an identity that went beyond their private one. They were the people of God, and with that identity comes a responsibility: to manifest God’s hospitality, to express God’s welcome and God’s love.

It’s true enough that a gay teen growing up in a conservative Christian church will experience much pain and isolation, even quiet despair, because of teachings that are imbued by the community with the obduracy of divine will. But in a raging storm, that same gay teen knows where he can run for shelter.

In contemporary debates about the harms and dangers of organized religion, New Atheists and other critics of religion have made much of the historic atrocities and the contemporary extremisms. And there can be no doubt that the structures and institutions of organized religion can be put to the service of hate. But in a considered conversation about whether organized religion does more harm than good, we cannot forget the less dramatic realities that organized religion can and does help to nurture: the day-to-day acts of goodwill, the gestures of welcome, the offers of shelter from the storm.

The question is whether organized religion’s power for nurturing hospitality and benevolence can be harnessed without the baggage of in-group/out-group ideology, without the false certainties that make productive dialogue about complex moral matters impossible, without the dogmatism that throws up walls against new insights and discoveries.

I believe it can. I believe it can because I believe that where people are gathered together in God’s name there is a force at work more fundamental than our human impulse for tribalism, greater than our individual hunger for certainty. I believe it can because, sitting here in my office today, I can still feel the pressure of that old woman’s hand, leading me and my family into the fellowship hall while, outside, the storm raged on.


  1. I believe you are correct too, but we have to arrange situations where we can just talk together. A conversation need have no purpose, but that is what is necessary to "know" the other. The storm proved useful for that purpose as do most disasters, excluding war.

  2. That is an incredible story that is incredibly well written. Seeing your son rise in the air, how terrifying. I am not sure I could have recovered from that as quickly as you two did. Be certain to save all of these stories for your children. Stories like this will last for many generations. Thank God, and it was God, all of you are well.

  3. Very well written post! I'm a Christian research meteorologist who apparently lives just down the road from you in Norman, OK. I research severe storms and tornadoes for a living (Indeed the likelihood of severe storms were predicted that day, but it's tough to forecast exactly when and where they are going to strike, or how severe they will be). What you experienced was a classic severe downburst, and I appreciate your account of it and am very glad that you and your family are safe.

    I also greatly enjoyed your account of the church that provided shelter for you. While I disagree with your theology on many points (I'm fairly conservative theologically), I also agree with it on many other points, and I have always found your posts thought-provoking (as well as your book responding to the New Atheists). I think you hit the nail on the head about the nurturing of love that Christianity provides that transcends our tribal nature. I think we as Christians should not be afraid to hold that out to the world as a contribution, and invite them along on the journey in following Christ in that context. I too am leery of shallow evangelizing, but I also cannot bring myself to abandon evangelism itself, because I really do believe Christ is uniquely God and also the best human that has ever walked this Earth. Nevertheless it should always be done in love, and in a manner that points to Christ and his loving nature. When that is done authentically, I think a lot of the in-group/out-group thinking and the often negative fallout from it takes care of itself.

  4. Dan: I do believe there is an important difference between the kind of "evangelism" I am envisioning in this post (which I describe as the act of creating a line of division for the sake of inviting the other to cross over to your side) and what I would describe as authentic evangelism--sharing good news with those one is in full community with. A fuller treatment of this distinction sewems worth pursuing at some point.

  5. "sewems"

    Now see, I like to learn new words. Your blog challenges my brain. Thank you. I am not being sarcastic, I am being honest.

  6. Hehe..."seems". But I invite creative definitions of "sewems" that would make it fit in the sentence in which I used it...