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Not long ago, Albany, Georgia was named the 4th poorest city in America.  This survey was based on average income or some such nonsense that the world uses to label things.  A label like this is hard on a city that is already struggling and often a cloud of despair can be felt when driving through some of the poorer areas.  It’s easy for those who “have”, to look at those who do not and think that the problem can be solved by better education or harder working people.  Yet, the poor are often some of the hardest workers out there.  They take the jobs that require long hours with little pay.  They work weekends.  Sometimes they work more than one job.  And they remain poor.  Poverty is a deeper problem than most people think.  It is an anaconda weaving its way harmlessly through a society until it is entirely wrapped around it and starts to squeeze as hard as it can.  And as I drive the streets of this city sometimes, it is literally palatable…the spirit of poverty.  When one stops to look in the eyes of these people in this city, one realizes that this is less of a choice and more of a prison.  And to break out of prison, there must be some explosions.

Which brings me to Monday night. Honestly, it was a night like any other.  We had some semblance of an idea that there might be some bad weather throughout the evening, but we weren’t on high alert.  Even the tornado watch was ignored to some degree as it is a normal occurrence down here in the South.  It really wasn’t even until the tornado warning that any of us at this house moved a muscle toward preparation.  Suddenly things began to knock up against our house and we realized it was time to take shelter in the only place in our basementless house that we consider safe…a small middle bathroom.  So there we sat, 10 of us in a small bathroom, waiting for the storm to pass and the lights to come back on.  We were scared…okay, some of us were terrified at that point…but I really still thought it was just a bad storm with some really high winds.  It wasn’t until we ventured outside a few minutes later that we realized that something worse than a thunderstorm had occurred.  Two of the trees on our property had literally been pulled up by the roots and thrown down across the street.  These were not small trees, they were large pines.  Within about 15 minutes, our neighbors were out with flashlights in the streets, checking from house to house to make sure everyone was okay.  The neighbor’s house a few yards down the street was covered in trees.  They were standing outside in shock as they took in the scene.  A tree had also fallen across all three of their vehicles.  It was destruction like I have rarely seen in my life.  Little did I know that this was just the very tip of the damage iceberg.

As I said before, our trees had fallen into the road and were blocking passage to this neighbor who needed the help, but neighbors started coming steadily to our street.  We were still under a tornado warning and it was still raining, but these people parked their cars to shine light on the roadblock and quickly worked together to clear the path.  They, then all moved down the block to see what they could do for others who might need help.  No one called 911.  No one waited for the city to show up.  No one hunkered down in their own undamaged home.  Instead, they met needs.

The next day, we ventured out into the city and realized that the damage was not just widespread, but incredible.  Thousands of large trees had been pulled up by the roots and were lying on houses and cars, businesses and power lines.  Century old oak trees had been demolished some of them as if they had exploded.  Major portions of the city were powerless and major thorough ways were blocked.  It was a disaster area by anyone’s standards.

And yet, no one in this city sat back and waited for someone to report all of this or for the governor to officially declare it a disaster.  The first posts on social media to organize volunteers were not from government or the city.   It was the Church that we heard from first.  The churches of Albany went to work around the city.  Crews of volunteers began gathering and deploying out into the city.  Groups of people took up their chainsaws and began clearing trees out of the roads and alleys.  Students went from house to house raking and sweeping and moving tree limbs.  Samaritans Purse and the Red Cross rolled into the area quickly and set up command posts.  Businesses and restaurants began offering free services and sustenance.  Donation drop offs were quickly organized.  Church members began canvassing areas and getting the word out about where people could get help.  Hotlines were set up and shelters were organized.  This wasn’t done by the local government or by the city, although, of course, it was done with their knowledge and support and alongside their own services. This was done by the Church.

Today I drove down the street to deliver some water to the command post that Samaritan’s Purse and Sherwood Baptist have set up in the city.  I passed church buses, church trailers, church signs offering help, church people out clearing trees… I passed the Church in action.  Not just one denomination or group, but all of us working together to bring Jesus to a hurting Albany by meeting physical and tangible needs.  I checked my Facebook and read post after post of resources being offered and needs being met.  I watched as people joyfully worked to unload water onto pallets, fix hundreds of lunches, and pray together for this community. Later tonight, volunteers will man churches set up as shelters…sacrificing their own sleep to make sure everyone will stay warm and well fed.

One man from the Red Cross said that in all his years of being deployed around the country to help, he had never seen anything like the Church in action in this area.

Another man posted on Facebook yesterday that a local official was being interviewed by the press recently and they asked him if they had reached out to the local church for help in restoring the city.  His response was “we didn’t have to.  They called us.”

The numbers say this city is poor…

I have lived in many cities over the course of my lifetime and have never experienced such riches.

*picture courtesy of Emily Flynt of K&R Photography