In the last several weeks, I, like many others around the world, have watched the weather forecasts indicating life-threatening storms on the horizons. Dangerous hurricanes such as Harvey, Irma, and Maria have descended upon countless communities, leaving mass destruction in their wake—forever changing the lives of the people impacted by them. Such is the case for my family, who have long–endured several tropical storms and hurricanes as residents of St. Croix, Virgin Islands. As a teenager, we completely lost our home to Hurricane Hugo in 1989, and my sisters have endured (and are enduring) the devastating effects of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
It has been difficult to be so far away and to witness tragic events that are affecting loved ones. Furthermore, it has been challenging to be cut off from the fluid lines of communication that we all take for granted. As I am often compelled to do when tragedy occurs, I want to help. I want to assist my sisters. I desperately want to support the Virgin Islands in their recovery. I want to support communities in Texas, Louisiana, and Florida as they seek support and aid. Remembering what my family went through back in 1989, and the help that was so thankfully received, I am yearning to provide whatever support I can.
I recognize that I am not alone in this desire. Several people, including the Luther community, want to support and stand with those in pain. As we consider ways in which we can get involved (which there are many), I want to consider how to best engage social action. It is not the 'what' that I am after—there are many ways to act amidst calamity—rather it is the 'how' we engage social support (and this 'how' relates to all types of social actions, including, but not limited to, support after tragic events).
To address social engagement in this issue, I would like to invoke the concept of accompaniment. This model, rooted firmly in how the ELCA views global outreach, is one that emphasizes that "walking together" with those in need is best, aligning goals and working together for a common good. This is different than, let's say, 'traditional' views of charity or outreach. As someone who has been on the receiving end of both pity and on the enduring support of those who wanted to "walk with" me, I can personally attest to such distinctions.
Please consider the following points not as a list of prerequisites for deciding whether or not to get involved (as you are able, please support those in need); rather, as intentions we should have as we engage communities and work together.
Accompaniment is not 'us' and 'them'
Oftentimes, we must consider that our own position may be different than those we support. Growing up in the Virgin Islands, I was accustomed to supporters from the USA or NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) seeing themselves as outsiders, only present to help the island people in the moment of need. I find this to be problematic, as the idea of "we are all in this together" should ring true for engagement of issues of this type. In fact, one needs to adopt a 'we' perspective when engaging calamity, even when far away. Due to my family being in the midst of rebuilding from a storm, it could be argued that it's easier for me to adopt this perspective. However, I would suggest the practice and pursuit of a "we" mentality when considering how to engage in any situation of need. This is not some false equivocation (not everyone lost homes or loved ones), but an acknowledgement that we all have a stake. Together. Just as we recognize that "an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere," there needs to be a sense of how we, as a community, are affected together and must work together. The losses incurred are everyone's losses.
Accompaniment is not about 'finding deficits'
In the case of hurricanes and natural disasters, it is difficult not to focus on the areas that are lacking. Consequently, many social actions are solely oriented to engage the deficits. It might have been easy to look upon my island and merely see the devastation, but not see the people and their potential for positive impact. Many islanders, familiar with certain areas of the islands, worked with support officials to chart out rebuilding efforts. Island people came together, leveraging complex social networks to provide unity and outreach to those in farther off locales. In spite of the catastrophe, there are many opportunities for intervention to come from within the community itself. Many times, it is about acknowledging more than the devastation; it is about seeing the strengths within a community.
Accompaniment is not about help 'for now'
One unfortunate reality with social issues is that the amount of attention that is received will inevitably wane as time goes on. As we moved from weeks to months to years, it was evident that the devastation incurred by Hurricane Hugo was getting less attention. As the exposure diminished, some of the support went away; or as my mother used to say "the world's attention has moved on." This was despite the fact that we still lacked many basic resources and were dealing with ongoing issues from the storms. It is imperative that we see engagement as a long-term experience. As the community rebuilds and heals, we must see progress not in terms of days, or weeks, but in months and years. My family and community in St. Croix will need help long after the headlines dissipate. Therefore, we need to keep affected communities in our minds, our prayers, and our discussions long after the exposure dwindles.
Accompaniment is not convenient
Certainly, helping can be efficient, as one needs only to find reputable organizations and support them in designated ways. However, once we traverse the path of accompaniment via prolonged, unified support for communities in crisis, the comfort of efficiency tends to evaporate. The truth is, accompaniment will come at a cost to those involved, as it requires a willingness to invest and sacrifice. I have been fortunate to see many people engage in this process post-storms in the Virgin Islands, supporting my community in ways that not only changed the community, but changed them as well. People stopped seeing it only as hurricane recovery, and began seeing it as essential actions.
Before the storms begin
Admittedly, the goals of accompaniment are aspirational. That being said, such lofty goals are attainable. For example, I have witnessed firsthand students and colleagues express not only regret at what has happened in the Virgin Islands and beyond, but a desire to engage these issues together. I am heartened to be surrounded by a community that desires to accompany others through crises. As new storms arise (both literally and figuratively), I challenge our community toward a model of accompaniment: coming together in solidarity, looking beyond the deficits, and courageously providing support for the long term. Such is the essence of a unified community.
Ronald Ferguson, Luther assistant professor of sociology, is the co-editor of the book "What's up with the Brothers? African American Males in the 21st Century" from Men's Studies Press (2012). He currently serves as the past-president of Sociologists of Minnesota and is completing work on the "Racial Attitudes and Actions in Olmsted County" research project with Char Kunkel, Luther professor of sociology, and recent Luther graduate, Jacq Congello. His scholarly interests include the study of multiracial children and families, African American masculinity, and Native American education. Among recent works, he has co-authored a paper on the evaluation of the college experience by Native American first-years as well as presented at regional conferences in the area of multiracial identity development.