Over the past several days the Houston area has experienced unprecedented levels of flooding from Hurricane Harvey. According to reports, Harvey is the first hurricane to make landfall in Texas since 1961 (and in the United States since 2005). Yes, all hurricanes since then have come close to making landfall, but none have done so. As we remember the flooding caused by those close calls, we see just how much damage these storms can do when they make landfall.
The pictures and stories we are seeing in Houston show just how devastating the winds and waters were for the fourth largest city in the United States. This is a natural disaster. And natural disasters are always disorienting, for residents and rescuers alike. But it doesn’t mean that it needs to be disorienting in another way for those of us outside of Houston.
I have noticed a trend over the past three days that I’d call social media disorientation. Post after post doing nothing less than creating confusion surrounding a very real situation. There are certain things you have to let go of when disasters like this happen. Otherwise, you’re causing more harm than you are helping. And there are certain things you need to lean into and embrace. I can name just a few here as I process my thoughts.
1. Stop Trying to Be First
Just stop it. Nobody gets a gold star for reporting anything first in social media. That is not your job. That will not get you a blue check verified account. If you are a Christian, it’s the antithesis of what the Kingdom of God is like (you know, the whole “first shall be last” thing).
The only firsts we needed in Houston were first responders. And I thank God for them. We could do without Facebook reporters sharing fake news (by the way, the picture of the shark swimming by a stalled car…fake). My rule of thumb: Only share what you feel would be valuable to the rescue and restoration effort. Otherwise, you become a natural disaster troll. And nobody likes trolls.
2. Stop Criticizing and Defending Joel Osteen
I cannot begin to tell you the number of times I have said this to myself the past few days: “Wait, there’s still a storm in Houston, right? Are people still stranded waiting to be rescued? When did this become all about Joel Osteen?” As I watch boats ride up and down flooded streets, I see people writing up and down my timeline about Lakewood Church.
Is it a large venue? Yes. Could it be used in some way? Maybe. But I think we’re missing the point when we take time out to talk about one church in a city of 2.3 million people. Especially when we turn the conversation to his doctrine and fluffy sermons. I could care less about Joel Osteen’s prosperity message or fortune cookie sermons when people’s lives are at stake.
Hasty social media criticism from Christians flies in the face of our responsibility to think the best of people and listen more than we speak. Look, I can criticize Joel Osteen’s preaching, but I cannot measure his heart for his fellow Houston residents. Not without objectively thinking through the logistical details of opening a stadium-sized venue for those displaced by the storm.
As an outsider, I owe everyone on the ground (outside of those organization equipped to deal with these disasters) the privilege of giving some thought to the implications opening a facility has for the space, operationally. Besides, there are other things I’d much rather focus on.
3. Pray AND Give/Do
I love to see that everyone is praying. For Christians, prayer is an effective means to offer spiritual support to brothers and sisters who, after all is said and done, may have lost everything. I have family in Houston right now. I have friends who live in Houston. And I know they appreciate the prayers on their behalf. Please don’t shame people for praying for those in Harvey’s path. It is a necessary component of disaster relief that is often overlooked. And it doesn’t make people less compassionate for offering prayers. The shaming is along the lines that prayers aren’t enough. But the shaming fails to consider that those praying may be doing other things too.
With that said, I would encourage us all to find other ways to support those hurting in Houston. And that looks different for each of us. For some, that means giving to reputable organizations who are on the ground doing great work (and please make it a preference to support the ones who give all of your donations to victims and not those who take 40% as administrative overhead). For others, that means finding a way to go help with recovery when the waters subside.
Prayer and action are both necessary when disaster hits. Neither is mutually exclusive. And no one should feel shameful for doing one or the other. But we should always strive to find ways to do both. Human compassion requires it.
4. Remember Helping Hands Have No Color
When I see the pictures of various races and ethnicities working together in rescue efforts on the ground, I am encouraged. Especially, in light of recent events in Charlottesville. I saw men and women of various racial backgrounds helping one another survive a catastrophic storm. It was as if helping hands had no color. Blacks were rescuing whites. Hispanic men and women were looking out for Black brothers and sisters. And that’s the way it should be.
The humanity on display in Houston is a small reminder that, at the end of the day, each one of us is created in God’s image. Worthy of dignity, honor, and respect in this broken and hurting world. I pray that we remember that truth when the waters subside. And I pray we resist the urge to create social media disorientation in circumstances like this in the future. We’re better than that. And if we’re Christians, we’re called to pursue healing and restoration rather than create discord. May we remember that in the coming days.