Hurricane Harvey devastated communities along the Texas and Louisiana coast this past week. My parents’ town of Rockport was among the hardest hit, suffering a loss of 70% of the town’s structures. The adjacent town of Fulton Beach, 2 minutes from my parents’ house, had its entire waterfront almost demolished. The response of the government, the state, and individual citizens has been incredible to watch. While my parents did not suffer great loss (their house amazingly survived – the only real interior damage was a picture fell off the wall), others in this community made up of retirees and blue collar workers suffered terrible losses. When you live on a fixed income and lose your house to a storm, there’s nothing left with which to financially rebuild.
So I found myself a week later driving my parents down to Rockport from Houston in order to check on their house and assess the damage. Leaving north Houston at 6 am, we were determined to reach Rockport by 10:30 to attend a prayer vigil at their church, First Baptist of Rockport, which was damaged by the storm. A rumor had floated among the small congregation that several government officials would show up, including the Vice President, Mike Pence, and Samaritans Purse CEO, Franklin Graham. When my parents shared this with me, I began to think, “What should I say if I suddenly find myself face to face?”
This is not a place to catalog my views of or critique the current administration. Let’s just say that despite my conservative background, as a male with multiple graduate degrees and PhD work, I am not in Trump’s demographic wheelhouse. Also, while my ties to the Graham family are long (I did my undergraduate degree in biblical studies literally inside the Billy Graham Center building on Wheaton’s campus) and my family has always participated in Samaritans Purse activities like the Christmas Gift Box, I have found some of Franklin’s statements on Muslims and refugees to be unworthy of his father’s lineage. And I normally wouldn’t think a prayer vigil is a place for serious policy discussion either!
So I turned it over in my mind for a long time – what should I say if given the chance? Do I have a responsibility for those who will never get to meet these men to try to pierce their conscience on subjects I disagree with them on? Should I “speak truth to power?” What would those people subject to the whims of the administration say given the chance? Should I act as the prophet Nathan to King David?
The vigil itself, set in front of the choir room exterior wall which had been destroyed by the storm, included two prayers, the signing of a Texas declaration of a day of prayer by Governor Abbott, and words of encouragement from the Vice President. The Vice President and the cabinet members present spent most of their time talking with the congregation members – the elderly, the kids (almost all of which wanted to go back to school), and the moms assembled to press their concerns. They took their time and listened to each person. A cynical person would simply call it a photo-op. And it was. But for the members of the church, the words of the Vice President and others gave them a palpable sense of hope. That the world had not forgotten their small slice of the Coastal Bend. That despite the devastation to their lives, people who represented them in the halls of power cared.
Suddenly in the midst of the crowd I found myself face to face with the Vice President. It was THE moment. He looked at me and I looked at him.
“Mr. Vice President,” I said, “thank you for the help you are giving to the people here.” We shook hands and he reached out to the person next to me.
Chickening out? Cowardly? I’m sure some would accuse me of such. “You could have changed the lives of so many if you had spoken up! How could you not be brave and courageous like Bonhoeffer to stand up to the government!” Maybe. I can see how in our hyper-partisan environment people might think that.
In the end, I realized something about Christian gratitude which overrode any sense of political outrage and self-importance. It is this: the idea of gratitude in the Bible doesn’t reference the giver. The post-exilic nation of Jews were allowed to return to Jerusalem by the pagan King Cyrus – and they gave him the title of Messiah for it (Isaiah 45:1). Jesus’ tale of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10) revolves around the fact that a sworn enemy helps the injured man.
Paul discusses some of the extra behavioral requirements by others outside the faith in Timothy 4 such as not marrying and forbidding certain types of foods. He declares, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4). Paul’s point, also seen in his views on meat sacrificed to idols, is that the need for Christian gratitude overrides who the giver is. Obviously Paul is not giving carte blanche to his readers (or us) in terms of behavior or who to work with, but the key ingredient is gratitude. The fact that meat was sacrificed in a temple by pagan priests doesn’t mean it can’t be accepted. But it does have to be accepted with thanksgiving.
So I put aside all the reasons that I shouldn’t and expressed gratitude to the Vice President, despite any misgivings, disappointments, agreements or disagreements. Are those differences important? Yes, and I will continue to advocate for what I believe is right and give support to what I judge the administration does correctly. But at the end of the day, this meeting was about helping the residents of Rockport, not assuaging a need I have to “be right” or “stand up for _____.”
In reality, part of growing a deeper Christian faith comes through setting aside the political priorities that try to claim supremacy over our lives in favor of the better divine gifts of the Spirit such as gratitude, ultimately expressed through the Cross. So just like my mother taught me, I said, “Thank you.”