"That is the most un-Christian language I have ever heard from one who calls himself a follower of Christ." With that, I put my hat on my head and walked out the door, past the loaded semi-truck and to the edge of the darkened road. I didn't wait for the guy to yell how he was going to call the sheriff if I didn't get off his property.
So ended our homemade relief mission.
All week long, we planned and collected equipment and supplies, secured warehouse space, ran up some major, major phone bills, received substantial cash donations for expenses, made preparations for a stay at Camp Casey III in Covington, La. --run by veterans against the Iraq war and one of the few places in the midst of the FEMA-led, post-disaster disaster that was actually doing something to help the people abandoned in the wake of Katrina. And rounded up a truck--or so we thought (indyweek.com/durham/2005-09-14/triangles.html).
We had a whole logistical system thanks to Bill Padgett (our hero), reusable clamshell boxes for subsequent missions, big military tents, AC converters, Coleman lamps--everything we needed for a base of operations. All week long people had come by, dropping off what the people on the ground said was needed.
We made sure they knew, despite destroyed lines of communication, that help was on the way, that we were going to do an end-run around the various relief and government agencies who had "failed" (or worse).
We were on a timetable. While the government diddled around, reports we received spoke of deteriorating situations, not so much in New Orleans--horrible enough--but in the parishes and along the Gulf Coast. There, whole inland towns were destroyed by seawater and wind as well as from debris--whole beach houses and fishing boats washed up to a half-mile on shore by the surge, smashing houses and stores, everything reduced to jumbled heaps of debris. Meanwhile people were dying from FEMA's criminal negligence, prompting grim orders for 50,000 new body bags.
Every day that passed brought a new urgency to our mission: to get needed supplies to the people who needed--hands to hands to hands. From our hands to the hands of Veterans for Peace to the hands of the people who had lost it all and waited now, literally dying as every day passed, for relief that looked as though it might not make it there, period.
"Don't go down there," said a fellow I met on the street one night, Calvin Edwards, formerly of the Ninth Ward, one of New Orleans' most impoverished neighborhoods. He looked at his partner for support. Calvin's bud shook his head, "Don't go down there," he repeated. Both of these guys had grown up in arguably the toughest zip code in the U.S. "It's murder."
We gathered our stuff in a smaller truck and delivered it to Fuquay Varina United Methodist Church. On the load-out day, the truck went to Carrboro to get the half-truckload collected by Maria Mekeel.
On Wednesday evening, we packed our bags and made ready to depart, going at the appointed time to the campus of Carolina Trucking Academy in Garner to get on the big truck and ride.
Charlie Gray, owner of the academy, bustled around making the last preparations, loading a chase vehicle that was to carry his support people. We dropped our bags by the big Volvo semi. No one made a move to put it on the truck. Odd, I thought. I started to smell a rat.
Then it was time for our "mission briefing," as Gray put it. We gathered in the office. Charlie gave a little talk how this was the work of God, something I had no real objection to. It was a calling for all of us, for him the Lord, for us, something beyond feel-good: quite simply how a human should reach out to another in a time of loss and crisis.
"Any questions?" Charlie said. "Let us pray," he said, leaving no dead air for pesky questions.
"Yeah Charlie, I have a couple of questions."
Charlie stared at me.
Where is our stuff going?
"The FEMA warehouse in Jackson, Mississippi."
I was momentarily stunned.
"You're giving our stuff to the United States Government?"--not a political question, an ecclesiatical one.
That was when Charlie started screaming--and I mean a volley of shouted curses like something out of Parris Island.
"Once you give something, you can't choose where it goes," he hollered.
I sat there calmly. I didn't yell, I didn't even speak for a while. I just sat there astonished and listened while this guy went off. I then left the building, stood by the road and called a ride while Charlie and his team drove off into the night with our stuff. Tents, lamps, boxes--everything. If we'd loaded our generator, Charlie would have driven off with that, too. I have no idea where it went. Charlie said "Jackson," but the way he behaved, well--I just do not know. We may never.
There was nothing I could do. I was mad, I felt like a chump. But mostly I was simply heartbroken. All our efforts--destroyed. I sat by the road and finally my ride came. After I crawled back to town I went to the Jackpot and started drinking bourbon. I sat there alone, stewing.
"It'll get there sometime," people said in the following days, trying to make me feel better.
"Thanks for trying, but you know as well as I that there is no way to know what those people are going to do with that stuff. It might end in North Carolina. It might sit in a warehouse for months--heck, they might landfill it. We just about as well have taken it and thrown it into the sea."
The facts are pointing more and more toward that conclusion. FEMA, for one reason or another (and I am open to others' ideas), will never get their mess together. If Charlie did go to Jackson, people on the ground are reporting literally hundreds of semis idling for days (at a thousand dollars per day) waiting to be unloaded. Quite simply, there is no sense of urgency among the feds, indeed plenty of evidence that, whether through incompetence or malfeasance, the stuff will get there late--or not at all. Anyone hear about Great Britian's generous gift of millions of dollars worth of food rations headed for the incinerator (www.mirror.co.uk/news/tm_objectid=16147117%26method=full%26
siteid=94762%26headline=exclusive--58--up-in-flames-name_page.html)? Or that FEMA, according to The New York Times, is "faltering in its effort to aid hundreds of thousands of storm victims, local officials, evacuees and top federal relief officials say"? I didn't think so.
So in light of all this, what I don't yet understand is Charlie's motives. Money? Glory? It doesn't seem to be positive, because what he did was the worst thing he could have done (assuming he were really interested in helping). If he'd given the stuff to a Methodist charity--fine. The Salvation Army? No problem. Even the Red Cross. But FEMA? The government agency that has utterly screwed the whole thing up, every lost day costing unknown lives? The whole thing just doesn't make sense--from a human standpoint, a logical one, but especially from a Christian sense.
"Render unto Caesar what is Caesar's and to the Lord what is the Lord's," goes a famous passage from Matthew 22--something I understand. Even though I am not a Christian nor do I subscribe to religions, I have knowledge of the teachings of Jesus and accept them as a fine way for folks to live (although not much evidence of his works in this world, sorry). Hate hate and when someone has fallen, reach down and pick them up. I also know a fair bit about Christian doctrine, dogma and history. According to actual Christian boilerplate, for one to take the fruits of a higher calling from God and give it to something as wordly (hence evil) as a secular government is, quite simply, the worst sort of blasphemy--a charge Charlie had directed at us. According to Christian logic, what Charlie did was to deliver God's works straight into the hands of Satan himself.
Whatever. In addition to likely depriving desperate people of essential supplies, there's the effect this sort of betrayal--that's right, betrayal--had on us, our team, our patrons, but mostly on the people who donated supplies, many of them poor themselves and not in the best shape to give.
"That is the worst part," said Padgett, our hero, sanguine about the theft of his personal property. "All those idealistic kids." Dashed, kicked to the curb. Stung. Screwed. Punked. Chumped like dogs. After a disaster like this, it will be hard to repair our operation--we have nothing now, and after this, it will be a challenge to get people to stand up again.
OK. Ship owners occasionally lose cargo from storms and piracy. Test aircraft crash from time to time. It is part of any human enterprise to sometimes end in catastrophe. But we are still going to Covington, La., come hell or high water.
To be continued.