Disasters and us


By Frank Wessling

When disaster happened in the world of our ancestors 150 years ago, there was no television to bring them news of it within the hour, no radio, no telephones, no worldwide electronic web buzzing with information. Their personal lives were not affected by every earthquake and flood that devastated people thousands of miles away.

They didn’t receive regular appeals in the mail or see TV commercials begging for money to feed homeless, hungry children in Ethiopia, victims of mudslides in Armenia, tsunamis in Thailand or earthquakes in Haiti.

These stories might reach them weeks or months after happening and thus lose their moral urgency. Even good Christians ever ready to respond like the Good Samaritan of the Gospel could let the news go as just another sad piece of history somehow fitting into the providence of God.

They could continue conserving their care for those around them: family and immediate neighbors.


That old slow-news world is history now.

There is never a season without news of disaster and massive tragedy, with innocent people left crying out in need. We can see and hear it all in living color and sound. We can read all about it in detail the next day, if not within minutes on one of our pocket devices connected to the Internet.

Some are relatively close — “500-year” flooding in Iowa — but distance is no longer a barrier to knowing the pain and loss and the pleas for help that rise everywhere. We can be voyeurs at the horror of Katrina. Then there is Haiti, other earthquakes in China and Chile, exploding coal mines and oil drilling rigs, tornadoes, a parade of hurricanes.

There is always something, and always a tug on the compassion of we bystanders as another wounded person, another grieving community calls, “Help!”

If anyone is weary of this it’s understandable. There is a name for it: compassion fatigue, which is nothing to be ashamed of. Even Jesus had to go off at times “away from the crowds” and recollect himself, refocus on the love that sustained him.

We tire of the calls for help but can’t shut them out. At least we can’t do that and still hear the Gospel clearly. We are in the providence of God in a new way, not reading about it or hearing of it as history. Because we know and we hear the same kind of immediate cries that Jesus did, we are in the mystery of God’s response.

How do we manage that with our limited resources?

It can help to focus on a manageable story. Look for, or imagine, a family, someone perhaps with a similarity to us, a hurting child the same age as mine needing to feel a kind word and helping hand for just one day. Look for a particular charity or institution doing good work but able to do more with a little more help.

Let the great big picture of disaster sit as background while each of us keeps a focus on the foreground of what we can do through the Red Cross, Catholic Relief Services or a parish-based project. Our little contribution then becomes big enough. While God is saving “the world,” we enter the saving work with our “widow’s mite” as admission ticket.

One other element makes this possible: prayer. Our connection with God and the mystery of God’s providence is the desire and the consciousness that we call prayer. Everything we know and feel is meant for prayer; nothing or no one, no far off news and no cry that reaches us, is to be excluded. This is the way of growth into the kingdom of God.

We either pray in that direction or risk losing touch with the divine heart of compassion and falling toward the heart of stone.

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