“Miss Julia, now you come over here with me. You and me is going to get along just fine. Ain’t no reason we won’t. I get along with most folks and I reckon I’ll get along with you too.” Miss Nancy wasn’t shy about putting me to work or speaking her mind.
I thought sorting and folding clothing would be a relaxing way to end my emergency response work. My back was aching and my legs were sore. But when I saw the mountains of trash bags filled with clothes lining the warehouse, I realized the lifting was just beginning.
The day started early, in a hotel, as I headed down for coffee.
“The best thing about breakfast at hotels is you aren’t tempted to eat,” I told my daughter.
Calling me early, she announced that a marine biology program had offered her a scholarship to study algae. “They are looking for ways to kill algae blooms before they poison fresh water.”
“Wow, how lovely to hear from you this morning and with such good news. Congratulations, dear one, if anyone can destroy algae, it’s you!”
One hundred copies of the book we wrote together, Momma, Who’s Babygod? were sitting in my car. Babygod is the easiest book I’ve ever written. After we had a disagreement, I typed. During her bedtime routine, she accused me of not loving her. Now we laugh at that moment.
Gradually, while we talked, the breakfast room began to fill. Couples came for waffles, burning their fingers as they flipped the iron. Children wearing new backpacks, sat eating Frosted Flakes.
I listened, as conversations about water, mold and loss, wafted over. One woman spoke about being raped during the storm while others argued about politics. It was election day. So as the crowd gathered for breakfast, I sat, immersed in their language as their conversational eastern accents fell easily on my ears, and I rejoiced in the rhythm of my childhood.
“The folks of Robeson County could show the world something about getting along. Remember when we integrated, there wasn’t one bit of trouble, remember?” I chimed in, proud of my hometown and wanting to speak optimism.
“Preach it, sister. You got that right,” one father echoed the sentiments of many others.
Going to the front desk, I whispered to the clerk, “Are these folks homeless?”
“Yes,” she answered, “seven rooms in this hotel are designated for I-95, the rest are FEMA.”
“Wow,” and remembering the books in my car, and I head out to gather them. I had taken them to the shelter but they wouldn’t let me in. The Red Cross set up tables to keep folks out of the center.
You can’t imagine the disappointment I felt when the woman manning the desk said, “You can leave five of them. We put them in the kitchen and they just take whatever’s there.”
“Are you sure I can’t go in and speak with folks? I grew up here.” I questioned once more.
“No,” was her final answer.
They all wanted the books. One waitress wanted two copies of Babygod for her twin granddaughters’ second birthday, one man wanted a copy for himself, another woman’s father had died two days back, she lost all her books in the flood. On and one the stories unfolded as a line formed.
I told about my argument with my daughter and how I called down the Holy Spirit to bless us, so they discovered I was the author. Then another line formed.
“Dear Andrew, Honoring your courage and wisdom during Matthew. With love, Dr. Burns.”
“Make this one out to Nathyiah.”
“This one is for Rose. She living with me until her father can get out of the shelter and rebuild their house.”
We kept on until everyone had a book or a Bible or both. They had a possession. Now they owned something.
That afternoon, while working in the warehouse, I pondered the blessings of that morning. Folding pajamas or car coats or dresses or shirts, I sorted each item. One pile was trash, one was for victims of the flood in Haiti, another pile would remain in Robeson County. I marveled that donated clothes, like life, gives you moments that you throw away and moments that you save, experiences you recycle or others that you keep forever.
To be in this place, with these people, in this moment, to be alive and filled with expectation about tomorrow was enough, for me and for them. To see Jesus in the face of every folder, sorter and homeless person, reminded me of this. It’s why we’re here together, to witness the suffering, so our eyes can reflect hope and our hearts, love.