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Deacon Gutiérrez: In the midst of disaster, the love of God unites us

I had written a column for this month. It was a continuation of last month’s theme on areas of public policy where we agree. But the news about the flooding in Nebraska and a couple of conversations made me change my mind.

If we’re going to talk about unity, we should talk about what is going on right now in our archdiocese and across the state. 

Some readers may be fully aware of the situation, but I was shocked to hear the statistics. Having five counties declared disaster areas is apparently significant. Ten counties signal a really big disaster. But at the time of this writing, Nebraska has 73 counties that could be considered disaster areas. That’s close to 80 percent of the total. News outlets are reporting that the loss in homes, cattle, grain and other property is currently $1.3 billion. Experts say that when all is said and done, we could top $2 billion. 

Those billions matter little to those who have lost loved ones in the flooding. Neither can state and federal aid replace lost memories or precious mementos. Still, in the midst of this tragedy, there are stories of hope and tales that place our lives into perspective. 

I had lunch with a friend involved in some of the relief efforts. He told me of farmers and ranchers who were being contacted about the damage to assess how much aid they might need. The government was reaching out to them. But these Nebraskans would downplay their own damage. “It’s bad, but we’ll get by,” some would say. “I know someone who could use the help more.” 

With the exception of a couple of curfews, there have been no reports of looting. Nor have there been widespread reports of Nebraskans taking advantage of each other. I have heard only stories of neighbor helping neighbor. Christian churches, as they have done for the last 2,000 years, have become centers of care, places where volunteers can gather and then go out to serve. 

All of this reminds me of two approaches to community. One is from Jean Vanier, a Catholic and founder of the L’Arche communities. The other is from Sebastian Junger and his book, “Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging.”

Junger is an American journalist who has, among other things, stayed with soldiers in Afghanistan. His book is a foray into the phenomenon of humans forming close-knit, cooperative groups. Few species do this, apparently. He writes, “Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary.”

These difficult times have made a lot of people feel necessary, and it seems Nebraskans are responding so well because we are grounded in a deep sense of community. But Junger’s social theory doesn’t explain everything. 

Vanier tells us in “Community and Growth” that communities are not just about feeling necessary. They are actually about belonging, which is a fruit of love. Even there, however, “we can only really love with a universal heart,” Vanier writes, “as we discover that we are loved by the universal heart of God.” 

Nebraskans are some of the most religious people in the country. They could use a lot of love right now, and I have little doubt that the love they are showing flows from an experience of the love of God.

So despite the bad news, our neighbors have become for me a ray of hope. Let us pray for those in need. And let us seek to be rays of hope for others.

Deacon Omar Gutiérrez is director of the Pontifical Society for the Propagation of the Faith in the Archdiocese of Omaha. Contact him at ofgutierrez@archomaha.org.

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