Some six weeks ago, the rains came down, and the great American dreams of many of our neighbors were drenched, and in some cases washed away. And then, in a great rising up of the volunteer spirit, Nashvillians came together to clean up the mess the flood waters had left behind. The national media didn’t come, but that didn’t seem to matter, for after all we ARE Nashville, a rallying cry that for a short time became both a verb and an adjective. Neighbors crossed boundaries to help neighbors, Rich folks helped poor folks. White folks helped Egyptian folks. There was a great spewing forth of neighborly spirit seen in the giving of money and time which was unprecedented. It was a good thing too, for the level of destruction seen in our city was unprecedented as well.
That was then. This is now.
Back then, in the mad rush after the floods, we would see hundreds of volunteers show up to help pull out drywall or remove wet insulation. These days, we are lucky if 20 volunteers show up on a Saturday, and very often most of them are from out of state. Back then there people were shaking their heads and moved to tears at the plight of their neighbors. Today, the tears have dried up as the debris piles have been hauled away and it seems like only a few are recognizing the major task of rebuilding ahead of us. Five or six weeks ago, we WERE a Nashville that put aside the normal cares of life to offer love and support in the face of devastation. Today, we ARE a Nashville that has put that out of our minds, focusing instead on things like the CMA Fest, ungodly traffic, and whether our property values are rising. We have moved back to normal life, even though there are some 10,000 homes throughout the city that can’t even fathom what normal life might look like.
We are Nashville, and that’s what worries me, for when it comes to dealing with ongoing tragedy and suffering, we as a city haven’t always been willing to engage in the difficult and sometimes expensive things required for creating a solution. As a city we are sometimes like a child with ADHD, focused intensely for a few moments when properly stimulated, but quickly losing interest when the conversation become complex and boring. “Oh, let’s let ‘them” deal with it,” we say, thinking that some do-gooder or “the churches” will address the problems that surround us and save us from having to see our taxes rise to help meet the needs of those who find themselves with “their backs up against the wall…” (to quote Howard Thurman). We’ve moved into the period of recovery where what is out of sight is out of mind, and for those of us engaged in the long term work of helping people to rebuild their homes and their lives, we wonder were everyone we worked with five weeks ago went off to.
For sure, we all have had to go back to normal life at some level. But then again, hasn’t the definition of normal changed by what we experienced in May. Certainly there are folks living among us whose lives will never be the same, and they need us to get out of the easy chair from watching the World Cup and head back into the neighborhoods to offer a helping hand.
Yes, we are Nashville – the Nashville that has failed to adequately address the problem of homelessness in our city and which still doesn’t have an adequate permanent solution for those living in Tent City. We are Nashville – the Nashville where persons seeking help in paying their rent or an out of control utility bill are told by the 211 system to “…call the churches in your area, because maybe they can help…” We are the Nashville that struggles and underfunds health care services for the the poor among us, leaving our city hospital in a constant state of uncertainty regarding whether it will be forced to close. We are the Nashville which had an Office of Emergency Management that was unable to fully cope with the scope of this emergency due to the continued budget cuts they had received over the years.
We are Nashville, and sometimes, when we come through, that can be a good thing. But other times, actually in the “normal” times of life, we fall short.
I tweeted earlier today that the character of a city is not found in how it responds to a disaster in the first week, but rather what it is doing in week 6 and 7.
Today, as I looked at the pile of project folders in our volunteer center representing houses that still need cleaning, homes that need to be treated for mold, and a variety of other tasks that are necessary for rebuilding I wondered which Nashville we ARE today, for it sure seems like the interest has waned, and we’ve moved on to the latest Music Row gossip. This morning, as I sat at my desk waiting for people to show, only to have a single group from Tuscaloosa walk through the door, I wondered which Nashville we have become.
Let me say it clearly and plainly: there continues to be great suffering and need throughout the city. Yes it has gotten hot and humid, and that suffering is less present than it was just a few weeks ago, but there continues to be at least a hundred projects throughout the city that need our attention in order to complete the cleanup phase. And we are moving toward rebuilding, a time when we will need skilled labor but more importantly significant dollars to help our neighbors bridge the gap between what FEMA gives them and what the actual cost of rebuilding their home will be. As my friend Rob Moreland with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance says, we’ve moved from a sprint into a marathon, and we have many more miles to run.
So let’s all of us, you and me together, define what it means to be Nashville. Will we be like the hare in that old children’s story who runs off fast only to fall asleep and lose the race? Or will be be like the tortoise, understanding that slow and steady wins the race? Do we have the stamina to be a city that offers love and care to our neighbors as much at the end of year one as it did at the beginning?
What kind of Nashville will we be?