September 5, 2015
By Marty Button
It was 2005. We had just moved to Minnesota. We had 6 kids, 2 of whom would be leaving for school in the fall. We had our heads down, concentrating on relocating a family, fixing our house, teaching kids to swim and ride bikes and look both ways. We were stripping wallpaper and painting cupboards and going on field trips and then it was August. A hurricane was coming. “Oh, it’ll be downgraded to a tropical storm in no time. There’s always so much hype.”
The pictures from New Orleans poured in. They were on the front page of every paper. The leading story of every newscast. The reports got worse. The pictures were beyond understanding. We watched people waving, boating, yelling, floating. People in stadiums with water pouring down on top of them. People whose faces were a mixture of despair, desperation, anger and resignation. Suddenly the mallard duck wallpaper, the mustard yellow countertops and the peach colored seashell sconces which had been successfully pleading to be updated lost their voice. Our house was luxurious. Roomy. Welcoming. It needed people from New Orleans to come, to stay, to have a new place to call home at least for a little while.
I called our church and offered “space” for whomever, whenever, however. No, I didn’t have anyone in mind. No, I wasn’t driving down. No, we didn’t have contacts in New Orleans. No, we weren’t connected to any relief agency. We were just here and dry and willing.
“Well, there IS this guy from Bethlehem who just decided he couldn’t take any more talk of the Minnesota State Fair. He left for New Orleans at 2:00 this morning to see how he could help.” This is my kind of guy, I thought. Some time later, perhaps a couple hours or a couple seconds, I called his cell number. I don’t remember the first time we actually spoke; it seemed like we left a number of voicemails before ever connecting. I do remember feeling like he understood our very vague open offer of a home and we completely understood his leaving everything to drive south.
For the next several days, Tom and I figured out our “system.” He called at all hours. I answered. Our connection was spotty or clear, brief or detailed. He’d ask me to call people I’d only heard of (the governor of Minnesota, John Piper); I’d spend the next couple hours getting as close as I could to pass along Tom’s request. Tom was sleeping in his car. Eating who knows what. He was organizing volunteers. He was the head of something. He was at Ground Katrina trading clear, cool, dry, organized Minnesota Fall Days for chaos, heartache, loss, humidity and need. Overwhelming need. Logistical nightmares that everyone watched and very few were able or willing to do anything about.
One particular evening stands out to me. I was attending my first meeting for homeschool moms. Tom called about 10 minutes into it. He couldn’t remember if he’d eaten. He was at a gas station with a rare opportunity to have his phone charging. He didn’t think he’d slept much. He’d been working with people for the last 22 hours. Comfort for him meant that people were actually getting the help they needed. Rest for him meant something got done that needed to be done. Maybe someone finally had had a meal. Maybe a family had found their son. Maybe an eighty year old woman with diabetes had slept on a cot instead of on the floor.
I returned to my meeting overwhelmed by the 10 minutes of information I had about New Orleans. The moms were in groups now; I sat in the empty chair closest to the door. The leader was in the middle of explaining something. I stared at her without hearing anything she said. What I saw was that her fingernails and toenails matched each other and her outfit. Upon noticing me, she thought it best to get me up to speed since I clearly wasn’t tracking. “Well, WELCOME!” she gushed. “We were just talking about how to have more Me Time.” I stared back. I contributed nothing except that I left. Maybe Tom called again. Maybe I faked that Tom called again. It didn’t matter.
It was months later that my husband and I actually met Tom. He was easier to spot that I had imagined for he was not alone. Because of course he had two men with him from New Orleans.