You Laugh to Keep From Crying

I forgot to tell you the most outragious thing Shug told me while she was here, but I just got an email from her about being in New Orleans and that reminded me.

So, Shug is going down to New Orleans right this very second to work on houses for Katrina victims with a church group that has been going down every year since Katrina hit.

Shug told me that this is the last year the group is going down.

“Oh, that’s awesome,” I said, thinking that that meant they were done.  And she looked at me, confused, and I looked at her confused.

“No, you don’t get it.  They’re just not going any more because they’re tired of going there and want to go someplace else on a mission trip next year.”

“Wait.  What?  Jesus is okay with you leaving stuff undone if you get bored.”

“Your half-assed is good enough.”

America, I think about this often since she told me–that there is still work to be done in the Gulf Coast that was (for better or worse) basically left in the hands of volunteers and church groups and the volunteers and church groups are ready to “help someone else.”

I find the whole concept of mission work to be kind of gross, I should just acknowledge up front, and I find the whole “I’m using your pain and suffering as a way to make me feel closer to God and to see a part of the country I might not otherwise” thing we do here in the U.S. to be really problematic.

But if I did buy into it and I were a missionary who, say, went overseas for fifteen years, working to put in roads and hospitals and churches and stuff and risking my life and I learned that some folks could just get tired of helping the same people over and over and do something else the next time they had some time, I’d be pretty fucking angry.

Which is probably why I’d make a lousy missionary.  I have trouble in those circumstances keeping my eyes on my own paper.

But I also think that this is why you have to have even a semi-competent response to emergencies.  Because volunteers do get tired and bored and the people who still need help this far out are people who need more help than just volunteers can give them.  You need to pay people to work and keep them working and who can do that for things of this magnitude but the government.

And when the government fucks up and drops the ball, you can have public outrage.

But who is going to say to volunteers and good church-folks “Wow, you’re abandoning people who need you.  That’s fucked up.”?

13 thoughts on “You Laugh to Keep From Crying

  1. That does make me sad.
    I can confidently suggest that some of the desire to drop is not (just) boredom… Folks get shell-shocked. I mean, obviously it’s not as bad as having damage done to you, but observing all that damage and how little your effort seems to accomplish and how little the rest of the world seems to care is, itself, damaging.

    I went with the Red Cross the Christmas after Katrina. I stayed three weeks, which was the maximum you could stay unless (I think) you were long-time volunteers and proven you could stay the long haul. In the second week, I became very depressed and irritable – which the supernice lady who worked with me told me was pretty normal. She said that it would more or less go away in the third week, and it did, but that was also because I knew was going home. But the second week coincided with a period of humiliating sexual harassment, and with my promotion to truck supervisor – which I believe only happened because the rest of the transportation didn’t like the previous supervisor and had him moved to a less important job. There’s not much to be done about harassment and discrimination in a place like that – I mean, I supposed I could have pressed the issue and stirred some shit, but I was leaving in three weeks, and to paraphrase you who’s going to say to a long-haul volunteer “Wow, that’s fucked up! You’ve gotta leave.”

    I feel almost as bad for the long-haulers (except the ones who use their volunteer week as a sanctimoniously “safe” way to abuse power) as I do for the survivors; they too are let down by the government’s failure to take care of its own.

  2. And when the government fucks up and drops the ball, you can have public outrage.

    That’s how it should be, B., but too many people have bought into right-wing bullshit about government being the problem instead of the solution. So they go out and they vote for people (to be in government!) who engineer the kind of massive systemic failure that overwhelmed the Gulf Coast. These elected officials then turn around and say “see, you can’t depend on government.” So the same idiots go out and vote for even more ‘anti-government’ types; budgets for vital services and infrastructure continue to get slashed; and even more citizens are left vulnerable and in need of ‘charity.’

  3. The fact that we have a huge slow-down in construction right now – -thus many construction workers out of work — makes me wonder why there isn’t a public works project to finish fixing New Orleans?

    Pay construction workers, house them and let them do their jobs where people need them. They don’t want to be on unemployment — they are on it because the housing market is all screwed up.

  4. I think Sam and ItPF just said everything that needs to be said about this.

    As for all the problems inherent in the “‘mission work’ as an excuse to visit exotic places” approach, a school I used to teach at in NYC was always raising money to send the kids to build houses in Costa Rica over spring break. Funny that almost none of them could be bothered to travel an hour to Newark at a cost of a few bucks round-trip to build houses there.

  5. NM, I think the far-flung mission work vs. the local stuff makes sense. If you can’t or don’t want to address the systemic causes of people needing such, then it is easier to go abroad to help out. That way, whenever you need or want to go home, you can feel that you did your part and you don’t have to stay in close proximity to the reality that your efforts may not amount to much in the grand scheme.

    I’m not in any way slagging on people who sincerely want to help and who devote monumental time, energy, and sacrifice into such efforts. I’m just pointing out that it’s human nature to not want to throw such effort into a lost cause. But when you feel like you need to do something, maybe going across the world to affix a well-intentioned band-aid (on a gaping wound that you don’t ever have to see again) is better than doing it in your own front yard.

    The flip side is that it’s easy to dismiss our own neighbors because, hey, we live in the land of opportunity, and it ain’t like they aren’t able to help themselves if only they are willing to get off their lazy asses. (That last bit might not get out of most folks’ subconscious, but I’m willing to bet that it’s often there. Again, not slagging, but it is human nature.)

    Also, I think it goes back to my earlier contention that ‘we the people’ consistently elect officials who follow the Christ-like creed of “every man for himself and fuck ’em if they’re drowning.” If we as citizens had a more neighborly national outlook, it would likely be reflected in our government (and its response to major disasters like hurricanes, crumbling public infrastructure, and poverty). We’d be less likely to need houses built in Newark.

  6. Well, Habitat for Humanity puts up houses in Newark. And almost none of those students at the school I’m thinking of who went to Costa Rica or Guatemala to build houses spring break ever put in a weekend or even a Sunday afternoon across the river with HfH.

  7. Wow, what snarkiness about people who are trying to help. Please, the next time you need help, call your councilman, or mayor or department of whatever. But dont accept anything from the do-gooders who try to make a difference and fall short at times.

  8. Anonymous, the thing that tickles me most about you is how, every time you comment here, you have this sanctimonious, prissy attitude. And I can’t help but laugh because you don’t seem to get that your sanctimonious prissiness is at least 1.5 times as tedious as my snark.

  9. well. As a card carrying Mennonite I have to say I think we do pretty well. Then again we have literally centuries of experience and a well run organisation (even tho it has a dumb new name). I think we are slightly a cut above the folks who ‘feel the lord’s call’ to Hawaii and the Bahamas for two week stints.

  10. I think the lord stopped calling me when he got tired of my screening him with the caller ID.

    And I hope you don’t mind me saying, Kat, that Mennonites rock. On my first trip to Belize my then-wife (who was born and raised there) told me that Mennonites were always on missions (term?) in that country and were really keen on building affordable homes for the locals. Also, my current wife and I took Amtrak to the west coast and spent a little time chatting with some members of a Mennonite family en route. Really nice people, and I loved the clothing.

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