Georgia Bulletin

The Newspaper of the Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta

Storm’s images evoke compelling recognition of shared humanity

By ARCHBISHOP WILTON D. GREGORY, Commentary | Published September 6, 2017  | En Español

A picture is worth a thousand words, as the famous old saying goes. Like all of you, I have been spellbound by the photos of the disaster that was and continues to be Hurricane Harvey. The images of the people whose lives were disrupted ignite an all but universal sense of compassion and empathy. I am certain that many of you have already reached out to help through the multiple agencies that provide assistance and care to the communities that were devastated by this hurricane—especially through our own Catholic Charities USA. The pictures speak to our hearts far more effectively than did the millions of written words that emerged on social and public media.

We gaze at images of elderly people seated in standing water in their nursing homes or of children being carried on the shoulders of first responders or of impromptu rescue boats filled with frightened people clutching the few items they were able to salvage from their flooded homes. We are brought to a deep spiritual awareness of our need for one another and the brave generosity of countless thousands of neighbors and even perfect strangers who sacrificed their own safety to help others.

I continue to find these pictures fascinating—not because of the tragedy they capture, but because of the humanity that they portray. Without fanfare, planning or organizing, people from far and near have risen to wondrous heights of charity and compassion in caring for one another. This is in stark contrast to what we too frequently have seen over the recent past in protests, acts of violence, and social and personal disintegration.

Portraits of generosity and kindness do move the human heart even more so than pictures of violence and hate. And those who broadcast these images have a very serious responsibility always to use them for the common good. Knowing how much influence these images can generate—for good or ill—those who transmit pictures of human behavior have a powerful vehicle at their disposal. Theirs is much more than a mere profit-or-loss business—they have a societal responsibility and obligation.

The powerful forces of nature have provided an opportunity for us to see each other in a much different light than we ordinarily may experience. As the storm raged, race meant little or nothing as people reached out in compassionate care to those who were in danger. Documented and undocumented immigrants became welcome neighbors and helpers for those whose homes and businesses were destroyed. Muslims, Christians and Jews worked hand in hand to assist the elderly and the young who were stranded or in danger. People across our nation contributed to the relief efforts without caring who received their much needed assistance.

Our differences mean so little when our humanity takes control of our hearts. Why does it sometimes seem to take a disaster to bring out the best in us?

Soon the hard-hit Texas and Louisiana communities will begin the long process of rebuilding and restoring their lives. Infrastructures will be rebuilt, homes will be replaced and refurbished, and energy industries will be restarted.

What I hope will remain is the vitally important memory of the unity of hearts that Harvey brought about. Would that our harsh and often violent public discourse could be swept away with all of the broken materials that are the remnants of Harvey. May the memories of the vital importance of working together across cultural, racial, language and religious differences be etched in all of our hearts and minds so that what Harvey leaves behind will not simply be new structures but a renewed spirit of collaboration and unity. Some might suggest that I am just being naïve, but I believe that I am simply being a man of hope.