She wandered over to us from behind the chainlink fence, past the upturned lawn chairs, scattered gas cans and the chained pit bull. From her yard she watched us descend upon her neighbor’s home with a Uhaul truck, pulling out buckets of tools and equipment and large garbage bags, cleaning up debris in the yard and while the supervisor went inside to assess the damage there. It had been eight weeks since Hurricane Harvey hit Houston. The rains and waters had receded but the people in this neighborhood did not know where to begin to get help. When our team from Samaritan’s Purse came into the neighborhood donning orange shirts and work gloves, curiosity spilled out into the littered streets, wondering who had come to help.
There had to be thirty of us on the grounds that morning. We had gathered from all corners of the country, two teams of men from Seattle and Michigan, a group of students from Pennsylvania, and me from Florida, that morning to receive instructions on the needs for that day. Previously we had pulled moldy drywall and insulation and rusted nails from homes in a flooded industrial area.
After receiving our safety reminders, our supervisor Steve reminded us, “We are here to meet the needs of the families we serve. If that includes sitting the driveway and talking to the homeowner while the rest of us work inside, then be ready to do that.”
We piled into our cars and mapped our way to destinations outside our comfortable borders, to this neighborhood where chain link fences separate houses one from another but did not separate the need after the storm.
The woman, disheveled hair, purple sweater, hand covering her darkened teeth (“I haven’t brushed my teeth yet this morning,” she confessed) walked up to me from behind the fence of the house next door to the one we were working on, asking, “Are all of you here to help? How can I get help? I’ve been waiting for help for a very long time for someone to help me.”
I waved for Steve to come over to talk her, and after a brief introduction, he followed her with clipboard in hand behind the chainlink fence into the dark cavern of her home.
After a few minutes he emerged. He motioned for me to come over to her, shaking his head. “There is a lot to do here. We have to get a permit first, but in the meantime lets begin by cleaning out her yard. Will you sit with her for a while?”
And as members of our team wandered over to rake her yard and pile up debris onto the curb, she sat next to me, eyes pleading for understanding as she began to unload the broken pieces of her own life.
Her story recounts those similar to many others. A woman, only a few years younger than I, trapped. The flood, the storm, only a metaphor for a life she experienced since childhood. Torrents of abuse, verbal and physical. Floods of pain, physical and emotional. And when she was drowning, gasping for air, the only thing rescue available was smoked or shot up.
Now, after the mud and dark waters had receded, she only wanted relief. Help. Assistance.
She wanted to be heard.
She wanted someone to listen.
And we sit on upturned boxes behind the chainlink fence
, shoulder to shoulder
, my arm around hers.
I listen as her raspy voice spills out her pain.
What can I say that can take her pain away.
What can I do after I sweep away the debris in her yard.
I grasp the wrinkled hand that grips tightly onto mine.
She tells me it is hard for her to talk, that is makes her anxious to talk to others.
Her home, her yard, her debris mask the security every woman desires:
A place of safety.
A place of refuge.
A place to rebuild after devastation.
Her slumped shoulders touch mine, weary from carrying burdens every mother bears:
The burden of childbirth pain decades after they are born.
The burden of traps in which her own children have been caught,
similar to the ones that trapped her even as a young child.
Decades of pain and worry are etched into her forehead, deep behind the eyes that gaze into mine, pleading for relief.
I have none to give her.
Her home and many others had been sitting in standing water for days, and even once the waters receded, mold and dampness destroyed the walls, rendering the home unsafe.
Working as a team, strangers descended into these homes, tearing out the places mold and dampness had destroyed.
I stood in one corner with a broom in hand, sweeping out the darkest corners of a nearby home, reaching with gloved hand into the dankest darkest corner, and with a shudder, uncovered the filth, brought it out into the open, exposed, to dispose into a garbage bag.
I learned to use a nail puller that week.
It took me a while, and a lot of wasted minutes, to learn to hold the nail puller just so.
To grab the head of the nail and yank just at the right angle that which was buried so deeply into the wood.
The nails were discarded on the floor and swept up with the old drywall and grime before some one would come in and spray for mold. The home would be swept clean before the next crew came in to rebuild.
I rose up from our boxes behind the chain link fence.
I gathered nails from the debris.
I gathered sticks from the yard.
I fashioned a cross from the nails and sticks and put it into her hand.
I opened her palm and gently pressed one nail into it.
I told her there was one who had nails placed into His hands.
And carried the hardest parts of her life for her so she would not have to carry them alone.
That one is the baby Jesus that we celebrate during Christmas, the one who left the beauty of his Heavenly home to live among us. Who came into this upturned, devastated world flooded with grief and pain to walk alongside us. Who later would reach into the darkest corner of our lives, uncover and bear the burden of life’s pain on a cross.
He did not have a home.
He was placed in a dark, damp manger when He entered this world. But the moment He entered, He was surrounded by light, light that shattered the darkness.
She listened intently as if these words were spoken for the very first time. I wrote the words, “God is Love” with a sharpie in the palm of her hand.
Her previously furrowed eyebrows relaxed for just a moment. She turned her face up towards me, her eyes bright, her mouth in a wide smile.
Her smile haunts me now as I prepare my home for the holidays.
I think of her desires to create a safe place for her children and loved ones.
I remember how much it meant last Thanksgiving weekend to have my children home, nestled within these walls where they grew up.
Where boxes of clutter from their childhood still fill their closets.
Where year by year I say I will let go, but cannot.
I wonder if these walls were swept clean of clutter and debris, if their darkest corners were uncovered and exposed
Would I be able to hold on to the promise, “God is Love.”
Would it be enough?
For more information on how you can continue to help others devastated by the floods, please go https://www.samaritanspurse.org