The sound of a train barreling over our bedroom woke us.
“Do you hear that?” my wife and I asked each other simultaneously.
Outside the window, the sky was illumined by lightning so frequent that it did not have time to darken again, the green light painting an eerie picture of trees flailing like they were trying to beat away ghosts.
The power was already out, digital clock faces blank and fans sitting silent, the violence of the storm outside contrasted with the deadness of the air in our bedroom.
We got the children, placed them in the interior hall, and waited.
Seconds crawled. Without a window, all we could do was imagine when we heard a crash or a crack.
In the morning, we would learn that the sounds around us were our neighbors’ trees splitting or falling, a story that nearly every resident in our town would be able to tell.
The children tittered, unsure if they should be truly afraid or if they should thrill in the adventure of yet another tornado threat. Some meteorologists say that tornado alley has extended into our area — and, in fact, all the way into Alabama — and I believe it.
The wind sang an angry song, the song of an angry climate, of a summer that cannot decide if it is mild or setting record high temperatures. More rain than had fallen in the previous month dropped from the heavens, heavy and thick, landing across the roof in drops so fat the sound they made was more slap than staccato.
Finally, it was quiet.
We checked our phones, and the doppler radar said the storm was past us.
In the morning we saw what the wind had wrought. The roof of my shop had been peeled back. A dozen houses in my neighborhood had damage from falling trees.
The power was out — it would be out for days — and it was hot.
I left to take disaster photos — the newsman’s bread and butter — and, since my church’s senior warden had wisely decided to cancel that morning’s services, I made a drive around the city to check on church members. Everyone was fine.
In fact, no one in the area was injured, even though the later official count said that 72 houses in our county were impacted by the storm. Entire homes were reduced to firewood by trees falling through them. Cars were crushed, fences thrown, and many, many power lines broken. In fact, the power company had to replace the transmission line for the entire area before power could be fully restored four days later.
I’ve seen hurricanes do less damage.
That morning I had been planning to preach about the hospitality of Abraham, when he feeds the Lord at the Oak of Mamre. Abraham didn’t see God at the oak, just a man — who he thought was a small-l lord, but still just a man. He offered him water and then fixed him a barbecue.
He was a nomad feeding a traveler on the road.
My sermon probably wouldn’t have been that memorable.
But the sermon I saw around town that morning, and the days that followed, was.
Like Abraham, who saw someone who was hungry, people started feeding their neighbors. Even before the denominational relief teams or the state food bank showed up, people pulled out grills and started cooking, or made sandwiches and passed them out, sharing water and cold drinks.
It wasn’t just one or two people. A dozen mutual aid spots popped up around the city before official organizers could show up. Some were set up by local organizations, but some were just individuals with the ability to help.
Food that would have spoiled otherwise went into hungry bellies.
It is easy in these times to be jaded about the people around us, to see them as standing in fundamental opposition to each other because that is much of what we hear most often — and not just in mass media, but often enough in everyday conversation. When all of our advantages are removed and we are forced to view people as people, and not as an amalgam of vices, virtues and political alignments, however, neighbors can once again see their neighbors instead of the psychic static that sometimes clings to our eyes.
A few days of unity following a disaster will not ease all of our culture’s tensions. Things will return to normal, and we will have to do the hard work of getting along and finding real solutions to systemic problems if we are to make it as a society.
But sometimes, when the circumstances demand it, when comfort is taken out of the equation, we can remember what it’s like to be a traveler who is offered a cup of water and is then given a full meal just because someone sees we need it.