“Hang on Toto, We are going to Oz!”
by Rev. Fred L Hammond
Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Tuscaloosa
1 May 2011 ©
I began Wednesday with waking up at 4:40 AM thinking that a police car was outside my apartment complex with its flashing strobe lights on. It turned out to be lightening that was happening so frequently that it produced this effect. At first I heard no thunder and then the thunder and the flashes of lightening began to fall into synch with each other. Until finally the storm was over head and the thunder was loud and booming. I never heard the tornado sirens go off as the thunder was that loud. And thus began the day that was to change the face of Tuscaloosa forever.
When I knew that we were going to be impacted by the largest tornado in recorded history, I wrote as my Face book status: “Hang on Toto, we are going to Oz!”
We know the story of the Wizard of Oz. A young teen by the name of Dorothy is feeling out of sorts and decides to run away with her faithful dog companion Toto. She runs into a shyster who takes pity on her and sees in his crystal ball Dorothy’s aunt who is very concerned for her. This revelation sends Dorothy back home but a tornado is coming and Dorothy is unable to get into a safe place so she goes to her bedroom. The tornado strikes and she is knocked unconscious. She dreams the tornado lifts the house up and lands her on top of a wicked witch in the distant and strange Land of Oz.
She longs for home in this strange place and begins her journey to the one place and the one person she has been told could possibly help her, the Wizard of Oz. Her only guide is to follow the yellow brick road. A road that she discovers has multiple paths to the Emerald City. A scarecrow tells her it really doesn’t matter which path she takes. His one desire is to have a brain that will offer him wisdom. She convinces him to join her; perhaps this wizard could give him a brain because if the wizard can get her home, then he must be some kind of wizard. They travel through some peculiar orchards and stumble upon an axe man who is made of tin but has no heart inside his hollow chest. Perhaps, just perhaps the wizard could give him a heart of compassion. Their final sojourner to join her is a lion, the king of the forest, who alas has no courage.
The four of them continue on their journey to find the Wizard of Oz in the Emerald City. A city that is green with horses of a different color; where all is peaceful, safe, and utopian-like. In some ways this is the beloved community; where justice flows down like waters and peace like an ever flowing stream.
But their journey there is not easy. It is not without conflict or unexpected detours, or pain and suffering. There are setbacks and barriers to overcome.
And by Wednesday afternoon our own journey was thrust into an unexpected detour of pain and suffering. The tornado- a mile wide slammed into Tuscaloosa and changed our lives forever. Based on the initial reports, the tornado was going to come through central Tuscaloosa and then over into Northport. And so as I saw the live weather cam and saw this monstrosity whirl its way towards us, I put on my bike helmet which I haven’t used in over 6 years, and threw the futon mattress into the center hallway of my apartment. I crawled under it and waited. After about 20 minutes I determined the storm must have passed and I walked outside into sunshine. Sunshine.
Nary a leaf was disturbed. The birds were singing their song of praise as if there was no care in the world. I had no internet, no cable and so I turned to my neighbors to hear what news they heard. I began to get a sense of the path of destruction and I became alarmed. I began calling our people who were possibly in the path of this beast. And I was getting no answer, not even cell phones were getting through.
Eunice Benton, our District Executive had called within about 30 minutes of the storm. The first inkling of destruction was beginning to hit the airwaves. Were we okay? I did not know. I was beginning the assessment of who I could get a hold of. People began to check in but those that I feared for the most there was to be no word.
I had been able to speak with Ana, she was safe but unable to get to her neighborhood to find out if her house was still there. I called Janis who live across the street, was she okay? Yes. Could she tell me if Ana’s house was safe? Yes, it looked fine from the street. When Jake, Ana’s son, who lost his trailer to the tornado, was able to walk into the neighborhood he discovered that though the front of the house looked fine the back of the house was gone. The dogs were there but traumatized.
I received a call from Rev. Jake Morrill who is a UUA Board Trustee, a minister of our sister congregation in Oakridge TN and a member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Ministry. These are clergy who are especially trained to help assess, plan out responses, and support clergy and congregations who have faced traumatic events. I break into tears for the hundredth time. This time because the greater world of our denomination has taken notice of our pain and the yet unrealized pain to be and wants to be with us. The message is we do not have to go this alone. Some of you may have met him when he was here Friday and Saturday to help us plan on how we can move through this event to the other side.
Thursday morning, I hear from Alice. She is with her son at Edelweiss German bakery. I meet them there. Her son shows me pictures of the community where his dad lives. It is Forest Lake. I was in Forest Lake a few months earlier for a private memorial service and marveled at its pristine appearance with perfectly landscaped yards, beautiful gardens and flowering trees filled with a variety of song birds singing their symphony. The pictures were of some other place. There were piles of giant match sticks with the lake brown with debris. Our house had landed and if this was Oz, it did not match the travel brochures.
Alice’s ex was in that rubble. One photo revealed only two things of his house still present. The stair case and a TV armoire with knick knacks undisturbed on top were all that were left. It is curious as to what remains. Students from the University of Alabama came through and found him under the narrow staircase and took him to the hospital where he was stabilized. Without their courage to go forth to help survivors, he might not have lived.
The students’ courage gave me courage for what I must do next. I still had not heard from people in the path of the tornado. I was going to walk into the neighborhood to find out, fearing the worst and hoping that they were alright at the same time is a strange tug of war of emotions. I was going to accompany Alice back to her house. We drove down one road. Blocked. We drove down another road. Blocked. We drove down yet another road and this time, Alice gets out of the car and speaks to the police officer. We are given permission to park the car to walk in. The next thing we discover the police are giving us a ride into the Kicker Road neighborhood.
There is nothing left as far as the eye can see. No trees, no houses, nothing. I have nothing comparable to compare this to. Not even the horrors of the Tsunami’s in Japan match what I am seeing. At this point Alice asks, “Where are we?” This is Kicker road, a road she has traveled on for decades. It is unrecognizable.
By this time we had received word that our people in that neighborhood at least were safe. Their houses were uninhabitable but they were safe. But what we were seeing was beyond imagining.
There was still one more couple that I had no clue about. I had lost all internet connections which meant no Facebook access. I could not even post via my cell phone. Who could have predicted five years ago that any of us would be so dependent on this new social media vehicle? I felt cut off from the world. Rob and Celeste were near the Forest Lake community, very close in fact. There was no word. I attempted a few times to get into their community and was blocked by the police. The rescue teams were still searching for possible survivors.
Some of our members were doing volunteering with other organized efforts. Ed called me and told me he was going to be walking through the Forest Lake community so I asked if he would be able to check on Rob and Celeste. He did and called to report that they were fine and house was unscathed. So this means that all of our members are safe. Some worse for the wear but safe.
It was then it hit me that we are on our journey to Oz. Many of us just want a place that we can call home. We want a place that will give us shelter. We want a place that can be our sanctuary, our refuge in times of need. We want our church to be one type of home for us and we want our living space to be another. This tornado has taken both kinds of homes in Tuscaloosa. Fortunately our church home was out of harms way but at least six of our personal homes were threatened to be unlivable.
Some of us want to make sense of all of this. I heard one of our members describing the experience of the tornado moving over head as wrestling with the almighty. This event stirs up so many old tapes in our minds. I had a fleeting thought that maybe the Baptist minister was right about god’s wrathful vengeance descending after Tuscaloosa passed the sale of alcohol on Sundays. I know that is irrational, if there is an anthropomorphic god, he or she does not cast down arbitrary vengeance. But the old tape was there. Why these people and not those people in the next house or next block? Why this tree and not the one next to it?
We are a meaning making people. It is in our evolutionary genetics. We want life to have a purpose. We want life to be filled with meaning, with destiny. These events are hard to comprehend because there is no meaning in them. So some of us want to have a brain that can comprehend, make meaning, make sense, and most importantly fill us with wisdom that will guide not just us but others around us.
I was in amazement of the number of people who were helping each other. While I was at David and Sheila’s on Thursday, viewing all the trees that had crashed on and around the house; David had stated that he needs to have some people to come and clear the driveway so that their vehicles could get out. There was a huge tree and I mean with a huge circumference that had fallen across the entrance of the drive. And I don’t think it was anymore than a few minutes and some one with a chain saw began doing just that very thing. It was if his wish was at this other person’s command. The generosity of people helping out each other was astounding.
People came by with water and sandwiches for those working. Others appeared to begin moving debris out of the yard to the edge of the road for eventual pick-up. The heart of Tuscaloosa was beating strong and it rhythmically spelled out compassion. Our own members were part of this compassion sharing. I fielded many calls from our members looking for ways to help. And the offers were as varied as there are stars in the heavens above. I know many offers were not taken up just yet, but that does not mean there won’t be future opportunities. Trust me there will be future opportunities. We were pulling together to help one another and I was amazed at how quickly that came together. And I was amazed at how much was done in the short span of time.
We are under the gun with the threat of heavy rain and so tarps had to be put up. And we responded with urgency and with largeness of heart.
And along with largeness of heart is another kind of heart, one that has courage. The word comes from the Latin cor which means heart and the old French word which refers to the inner heart, a metaphor for inner strength. Some synonyms include bravery, fortitude, endurance, mettle, spunk, spirit, tenacity. Some of us are searching for courage like the lion in the Wizard of Oz for in the days and weeks ahead it will be courage that gets us through.
It was only together that Dorothy, the scarecrow, the tin man, and the cowardly lion were able to reach their goal of defeating the wicked witch of the West and in the process developing the character that is needed to achieve their ultimate goals. Together we too can make our way towards the Emerald City.
We will need to lean on each other for heart, for courage, for wisdom and we will need to be the ones who create a sense of home once again. In the days and weeks and months ahead as we rebuild not only Tuscaloosa but the lives of those so devastatingly impacted by this tornado, we will be required to come together in new ways. We will be stretched to find new wisdom that has been there all along but never recognized. We will be called upon to love one another with compassion in ways that may seem foreign to us but if we want to rebuild, this compassion is not an option but a necessity for our spirits to be renewed. In the days ahead we will be required to act with courage, with fortitude, with tenacity because there will be days that seem that nothing is moving fast enough for us. Every disaster that has happened in this country on this magnitude or greater has been fraught with a bureaucracy that apparently has wheels stuck in molasses. And to get through this it will take courage the likes of which we may not have seen before.
But we will survive this. We will take this experience and grow from it. We will learn to love one another in visible ways that we have never imagined possible. This will happen because we have already decided to do so in the actions that we have done in these past few days.
Later today, Rev. Bret Lortie from the San Antonio Church and another member of the Unitarian Universalist Trauma Ministry will be here. He will be helping us take the next steps of healing. Mary, our board president and I will meet with him this afternoon to map out his time with us. He will be here the next few days and will leave on Wednesday. His role is to walk along side us as we begin to process all that has happened. He again represents that we are not alone in this journey. Depending on our needs there may be another minister who comes for a few days after Bret.
But understand that our yellow brick road will continue for quite some time. We need to follow it together and Bret and others will be available to us help us access the heart, the courage, and the wisdom that is already within us to lead us home to Oz. Blessed Be.