A Voice in the Storm

Marathon runners at Staten Island ferry preparing to volunteer to help Hurricane Sandy victims.(Photo: Christina Wallace (@cmwalla) / Instagram

Mayor Bloomberg’s reluctance to cancel the NY Marathon is understandable.  The show-must-go-on come-hell-or-high-water attitude is a distinctly NYC thing.  He made the right call in the end, of course, and I loved reading news stories about NY Marathon runners and race volunteers distributing marathon ponchos and offering disaster relief.  With another winter storm on the way, it sounds like the need for blankets in areas hard hit by Sandy is real and growing.  I caught myself wondering why people who had plenty of time to evacuate might be needing blankets, and that reminded me of a story.

Over a decade ago, two kids interned with my church for a year immediately after graduating from college.  The purpose was to discern their calling in ministry.  During the course of that year each gave a sermon.  Andie Wigodsky graduated from my alma mater, Duke, and her sermon described a spring break mission trip.  Torrential rain and flooding had destroyed tobacco crops in North Carolina that year, and a group of Dukies gathered blankets and warm clothing before heading south to offer disaster relief.  They expected to find housing swept away by flood water and migrant workers left with nothing but the clothes on their backs.

That’s not what they found.  What they found was housing untouched by flood water and migrant workers who had nothing but the clothes on their backs in the first place.  The blankets and clothes were much appreciated, but the disaster was more complex—and actually worse—than what they had expected.  The workers were visiting the US on work visas that restricted their ability to leave the farms on which they were licensed to work.  Their pay was based on farm productivity, so the fact that the crops were destroyed meant they would be paid nothing for all labor they had already given.  Worse, they were bound to remain on the farms for the duration of the season, even though there would be no pay.  Migrant workers make considerable family sacrifices for work to send money home, and the futility of their sacrifice was heartbreaking.  That speaks nothing of the injustice of their prison-like conditions.

The story stayed with me because I think it encapsulates in microcosm what we so often encounter when we try to offer help to people in need.  We tend to have an oversimplified notion of what the needs actually are.  Often the situation, and the injustice underlying the situation, is more complex than we realize.

Now that New Yorkers hardest hit by the storm are coming to grips with how long it will take to get back to normal, we’re hearing stories about needs and frustrations.  Some of the 34,000 people FEMA is putting up in hotels have short term housing needs (they will return to habitable homes with heat and power within days), and some are not so lucky.  The worst case estimate is 40,000 people in need of shelter, half of whom depend on public housing.  I wonder about their needs that pre-date Sandy.

The greatest injustice the migrant workers faced wasn’t deplorable conditions but having no voice in a regulatory system stacked against them.  Voting is how we make our voice heard.  At a time when the only obvious vote fraud is poll access restrictions under the pretense of preventing vote fraud, I sincerely hope all those displaced by Sandy, and everyone else, will have a chance to vote and make their voices heard today.

Join the conversation.  What injustice do you seek to right with your vote today?

Copyright 2012 Stephanie Walker All rights reserved. Visit www.AcrossTraditions.com.