Jewish World Review Sept. 29, 2005 / 25 Elul,
Church, State and Wal-Mart
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. Does anybody still doubt that, when crisis strikes, culture matters more than politics?
Then consider the different responses of our society's different cultures to the disasters that have swept this part of the country of late. Begin with the religious response to these biblical-scale upheavals:
Arkansas' Baptists almost beat the 165-mile-an-hour winds to the scenes of havoc down south. They were feeding thousands a day at Kenner and Gonzalez, La., and Laurel, Miss., as soon as the storm had roared through. The Baptists had pre-positioned a couple of their mobile kitchens and were ready to move in as soon as it was safe, if not before.
Then, over the next three weeks, 500 Arkansas Baptists would be putting in 12-hour days serving close to 400,000 hot meals to victims of the storm. Others worked on removing trees that had fallen onto about 500 homes along the Gulf Coast. (The chainsaw brigade was so eager to help that the Arkansas Baptist Convention had to institute a safety program to keep these folks from rushing into danger.)
What moves these people? And why, often as not, are they on the scene fastest with the most food and water? In part it's just plain neighborliness the satisfaction of helping others. In part it's because so many are outdoorsmen, the kind of hunting-camp cooks and honey-do handymen who grow up knowing how to clean a deer or install a generator. And in part it's because there are just so many Baptists in these latitudes that their good works are hard to miss.
But there's something else going on here that distinguishes the faith-based from other kinds of help. These folks are not just helping others, they're fulfilling themselves. They're doing their L-rd's work. They're doing what they were born (again) to do and they couldn't be happier. It's what they live for. They feel it's why they've been put here. You just can't buy that kind of devotion. You can only get it free, like grace.
Then there's the Salvation Army. After Katrina struck, its vans popped up across the Gulf Coast like mushrooms after a rain. As the hurricane made landfall, this army readied more than 38 teams of cooks and dispatched a couple of fully equipped kitchens to feed victims, volunteers and aid workers. The goal: to provide daily meals for 230,000 people at the height of the disaster.
And then there's the corporate culture, or at least the right kind of corporate culture. While Katrina was still in Florida, Wal-Mart's command center had already been activated. Fifty of its managers and staffers were gearing up to direct the delivery of emergency supplies all across the Gulf Coast generators, dry ice, bottled water, packaged food, peanut butter, pet food . . . . you name it.
Wal-Mart's trucks were ready to roll, and roll they did way ahead of the feds' whole, clunky juggernaut, especially the disgrace called FEMA. Folks along the Gulf Coast soon learned they could depend on Wal-Mart while they waited, and waited, and waited for government to stir.
To quote the mayor of Kenner, La., Philip Capitano, "The only lifeline in Kenner was the Wal-Mart stores. We didn't have looting on a mass scale because Wal-Mart showed up with food and water so our people could survive. The Red Cross and FEMA need to take a master class in logistics and mobilization from Wal-Mart."
While the politicians were blaming each other for the sorry job they were doing, the Jesus freaks and Wal-Mart company men (and women) were getting the job done.
With gusto. The contrast they provided with government especially in New Orleans, Baton Rouge and Washington had to be clear even to the most confirmed statist.
There's nothing like a crisis to reveal the weaknesses in some cultures, the strengths in others.
This picture of contrasting cultures would be incomplete without mentioning one more: the military culture and how it met the crisis. There are no words of praise adequate to describe the job done by the U.S. Coast Guard, which was saving lives even at the height of Katrina's wrath. This week the Coast Guard was doing it again as Rita struck a little farther west.
And if the U.S. Army had been allowed to respond as promptly, it would have acquitted itself as well. As it did when the National Guard was finally used. But the dithering civil authorities couldn't decide just who had the authority to call out the troops the governor of Louisiana or the president of the United States. Even the best of cultures can be rendered useless by paralysis at the top.
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