In August of 2011 a group of us got in a van and drove to Harvest, Alabama to help the town rebuild and recover following the devastating tornados that struck the region just a few months before.
If you missed it or have forgotten, here’s a video we made prior to the trip.
On the way into town, we saw minimal destruction. Our first project was to rebuild a playground at a youth center in Harvest that serves a lot of at-risk children. We also had volunteers from our team working in the youth center with the kids each day of our trip. We actually finished this project two days early, so we spent a couple of our “extra” days driving around just looking for people to help.
We met an older couple who had a huge tree fall on their house. Through the efforts of our group, we removed the tree without further damage to the house and were even able to cut it up into usable firewood for them. We were feeling pretty good about what we were accomplishing, and we were naively surprised at how little destruction there was. It wasn’t even remotely as bad as we expected.
On the last day, just before we left town, we decided to take a few minutes to drive out of the city to a nearby neighborhood that I had been told had been hit hard by the storms. No amount of preparation could have readied us for what we saw. We could have seen a million pictures before this trip and we still would have never expected to experience what we did. As we drove into the area of this neighborhood, we were hit equally hard with the reality of the death and destruction that had fallen on these people.
We pulled our vans into a driveway that used to lead to a house. Now all that stood in it’s place was a chimney. Our group stood completely speechless, silenced by the gravity of our surroundings. We never expected to see what we saw here.
As far as you could see, foundations of homes that were no more stretched across the landscape in an endless sea of pain. It was almost as if you could still hear the wind and maybe even the cries of people who were afraid for their lives. Tears filled our eyes as we stood in the midst of the emptiness. It was the middle of the day, but it felt like midnight. A darkness and a void hung over this place in a way that I can’t describe.
As I was walking around and taking it in, I found what appeared to be a makeshift memorial of some kind. I found out later that a young girl who had lived in this house had died in the storms. Someone had set up a small cross made out of two pieces of wood from the house. At the bottom of the cross, they leaned a teddy bear. The little stuffed toy was facing the house, as if to watch over things, keeping an eye of protection.
I snapped this picture:
I don’t know how long I stood there and looked at that bear. It might have only been a few seconds, it might have been a couple minutes. It might as well have been hours. I don’t know anything about that little girl. I don’t know what she looked like, what color her hair was. I don’t know what kind of games she liked to play. I don’t know if she was a happy girl or a sad girl. I’ve never seen her picture or heard her story.
What I do know is that a life ended too soon. A storm robbed her of years that should have been spent laughing, playing, and growing old. Storms will do that to you.
For some reason, in that moment, I thought of Psalm 91:1:
“Those who live in the shelter of the Most High will find rest in the shadow of the Almighty.” (Psalm 91:1 NLT)
We know that storms are going to come. Life isn’t easy, in fact, more often than not, life is hard, cold and cruel. But Jesus is good. His shelter is warm. His rest is free.
Even in a storm, my God is good. Even in the middle of the night, my God is good. Even when hope is gone, darkness comes, and there’s no light at the end of the tunnel, my God is good.
I walked away from that teddy bear doing my best to contain my emotions. Our group circled up across the street in the driveway of another shell of a home and we prayed for this community, for these people, and for those who would come after us to help them rebuild and piece together whatever was left of their lives. Many of them would be starting over. Some still wait.
As we prayed, even in the midst of tangible hopelessness, we were reminded that God is good. Faithful. Constant. It’s safe to say we were very different when we left that day than we were when we came. I’ve never appreciated shelter more than I do now.
My God is so good.