Monday, November 26, 2012

Rebuilding the World in Northern Alabama

Note: I completed this in the early spring. It appeared in The Crazy Wisdom Community Journal, Issue 52, September through December 2012. It is published by The Crazy Wisdom Bookstore, an excellent independent bookshop in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

And your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;
you shall be called the repairer of the breech,
the restorer of streets to dwell in.
-Isaiah 58:12

The Storm

At 3:05 in the afternoon on April 27, 2011 a category 5 tornado, which is the most powerful rating, slammed into Franklin County, Alabama just southwest of Hamilton near Highway 19. It widened to a damage width of a mile and ¼, with peak winds of up to 210 mph, and leveled the town of Hackleburg.

Then, destroying thousands of trees in its path, the tornado moved on toward the small town of Phil Campbell.

Sandra Robinson was at home watching the television weather report in Phil Campbell. Four minutes before the tornado hit, her television went out. Her husband Jeff started for the door because he wanted to see the storm approach. She told him to stay inside.

“Then my ears started to pop from the sudden change in air pressure,” he said, “and I heard this roaring that just got louder.”

Like many of the homes here, their house was built on a cement slab. They didn’t have a basement so they ran into the laundry room near the center of the house. They lay down on the floor and braced their legs against the door, which felt like it might blow in on them. They were terrified.

When it ended Jeff opened the door and glanced to the left. “A couple of windows had blown out. I thought this isn’t so bad.” Then he looked to his right. “Where the roof was, I could see the sky. Half the house had blown away.”

Dazed, they left the wreckage of their home and headed toward the First Baptist Church.

“I’m glad we went toward the church,” Jeff said. “I found out later there were dead people –our neighbors—in the other direction.”

The storm roared through Phil Campbell in 45 seconds. At least 100 structures were destroyed, a 25 ft section of pavement was sucked up, debris was found as far away as Mississippi and Knoxville, Tennessee, and twenty six citizens from this small town of under 1,000 people died.

Phil Campbell received its improbable name as the result of a deal the town made with a railroad engineer. They told him they would name the place after him if he routed the train tracks through town.

For the past 5 years, the Rev. Bob Livingston, pastor of the First Congregational Church of Ann Arbor on State Street, has led a delegation of his parishioners down south to work on building projects at various disaster sites. I’m not a member of Bob’s church, but I’ve worked with him in an Ann Arbor downtown neighborhood association. He is one of the most decent people I know, a man utterly without pretense.

This year he has gathered a group of just under 30 people to travel to Phil Campbell.

“A number of the people in my congregation are interested in a ministry of service, which is what I think Christianity is all about,” he tells me.

This is consistent with what Millard Fuller, the founder of Habitat for Humanity called “the theology of the hammer.” Fuller believed it is imperative that people put their faith into action to serve others by building and renovating simple, decent houses for people in need.

In mid February I drove south with my friend Jim Kern, a retired Ann Arbor psychoanalyst, to join Bob Livingston’s team in Franklin County, Alabama. I’ve always wanted to do this. I’m very interested in talking with folks who want to move outside their own comfort zone, beyond ‘the banality of consumption’, to help those in need. I’m also interested in meeting people who have survived natural disasters. What do they make of a experience like this? And last, but certainly not least, I’m hoping to pick up some home repair skills that will dazzle my wife, who doesn’t dazzle easily.

Day 1: We bivouac at the Hotel Jesus, meet John Raymer and hear about the Miracle of the Shiny Man

Late in the afternoon on Sunday we arrive in Russellville, Alabama, a town about 10 miles north of Phil Campbell. Eight thousand people, a quarter of them Hispanic, live here. By the look of things, Russellville has seen better days. At one time there was a factory here that made mobile homes. Then it was a center for furniture. Both industries went bust, and the local economy tanked. Now the main business in the area is a large poultry processing plant.

The First Baptist Church, which is hosting our group, occupies a city block in downtown Russellville. We are bivouacked in classrooms on the second floor above the church gymnasium. A former occupant of the room, someone from Wedowee, Alabama, has written on the blackboardWe call this the “Hotel Jesus”!

After pizza and salad, Bob introduces us to John Raymer, a large, shy, somewhat rumpled man who looks like a biker, which he is.

“I heard God speak to me when I was in Lake Charles, Louisiana,” he tells us. “I’ve received a calling from God to help people who’ve been through catastrophes, and I’ve been a full-time volunteer traveling around the country since Sept 2007. I’ve been living in Phil Campbell since June and I fell in love with the Baptist Church here. I’ll stay until God tells me to go someplace else.”

John is the liaison person between the community and our group. Whoever assigned this earnest, open man to steward us around Phil Campbell has made an excellent choice.

“We’ve given away clothes and furniture. We do rebuilds and fixes, and we’ve built 3 houses. A lot of it is paid through FEMA grants. This is a tight-knit community. These are country people. They are very resilient, but it takes years to recover from something like this. Very few people had home insurance. Sixty percent of the town was wiped out.”

John says that in addition to our group from Ann Arbor, there is “an encampment of Midnights just south of town.” I immediately think of the Dark Legions in The Lord of the Rings. What are they doing here? But we have misheard him. He said Mennonites.

It is clear that John Raymer is in awe of the Mennonites, as well he should be given the skill set they possess after raising so many barns in their own rural communities.

We mingle with the other volunteers and local people in the church gym. There are 12 families in our group from Ann Arbor. The youngest person is 11 and the oldest are a couple in their eighties.

A local man tells us one of the stories circulating through the community about a three year-old boy who was found unharmed inside a cooler a half mile from his home following the tornado. When asked how he had the presence of mind to get into the cooler, he is said to have replied that “a Shiny man told me to do it”. The person who was telling us the story dropped his voice and said softly, “The Shiny Man must have been Jesus.” This was the punch line, and there was a collective intake of breath among the small audience.

At this point, Jim, a lifelong skeptic who is not predisposed to give this sort of thing a pass, said that Shiny Man sounded like China Man to him. The child could have been saying China Man.

“But there aren’t any Chinese people around here.”

“I saw a Chinese Buffet down the road,” Jim says, his voice trailing off. He lets go of it at this point, but I’m afraid he has sown the seeds of disbelief among us.

At 8 o’clock our group assembles in a room off the gymnasium for a debriefing called ‘Roses and Thorns’. People are asked to share the positive and negative things that have happened to them during the day. The emphasis is on ‘Roses’ events. Each evening we repeat this exercise.

Day 2: I acquire on-the-job drywall skills at Sandy and Jeff Robinson’s house

A little after 7 am we gather in the Church gym for breakfast. I am greeted by a man wearing a large black cowboy hat, who introduces himself as Bobbie Neal Smith. He is a volunteer in charge of setting up chairs in the gym and, we are told later, is beloved by the people at First Baptist. Unfortunately, he has a very thick Alabama accent, he has a tendency to cut the final syllable off each word and he speaks fast. I don’t understand a thing he says to me beyond his name.

After breakfast we make brown bag lunches and gather in one of the church rooms for Devotionals. Today, under the talented musical direction of Rev. Bob, who plays guitar, we begin with the song They Will Know We Are Christians by Our Love.

We will work with each other
We will work side by side
And we’ll guard each other’s dignity
And save each one’s pride.

This perfectly expresses my deepest wish. Jim and I have been assigned to Group 1 and our task today is to do drywall work, which involves covering screws with a mud-like compound, taping the drywall seams, sanding, and priming. I do not have the slightest idea about how to do any of this, and I fear being exposed for what I am—someone who lacks any home repair skills whatsoever.

After the song, Bob delivers a short sermon/pep talk, reading from Philippians 4, in which the Apostle Paul urges the Philippians not to worry about anything and “to stand firm in the Lord.” Bob talks about the importance of attitude, the impact it can have on the way we work.

It’s time to man-up. I attempt to appear resolute.

We drive out to the Dry Wall House, which belongs to Jeff and Sandy Robinson. As Jeff earns money, he rebuilds their house. Like many people here, they didn’t have their home insured. In the mean time, he and Sandy are living in a FEMA trailer next to the house.

It turns out I needn’t have been anxious about my nonexistent dry wall skills. John Porter, one of the leaders of our group, appears to know everything about the field of home repair. In addition, he is a talented and patient teacher. He shows us how to properly apply a mud-like paste over the screw holes. He uses a hard plastic spatula, quickly turning it clockwise when it touches the drywall. This requires a certain finesse, but I gradually catch on. We learn how to tape over wall joints and do the corners of walls using tape that is folded down the middle.

The work is fun up to a point, but then it isn’t so much fun. After two hours my body starts to lock up. I’m using muscles I haven’t used in a very long time, and by the end of the work day I think I need some powerful pain medication.

But this evening I am healed by a dinner of soft tacos, refried beans and salad that Holly Porter and Shirley Adams have magically conjured up.

Day 3: We demolish the rickety carport frame in Shalecia Bonner’s yard, attach sheet metal skirting around the base of her mobile home

This morning we sing a rousing When the Spirit Says Move and If I Had a Hammer, two songs that energize everyone in the room.

Then Pastor Bert Fowler, Minister of Music and Senior Adults at First Baptist, gives a short talk. He tells us about a man who sought pastoral counseling following the tornado because he was experiencing suicidal thoughts. He had been thrown about 600 yards from his house. He survived but his mother and his mother-in-law, who were in the house with him, died.

“Why did I survive?” the man asked.

Pastor Bert quotes 1st Corinthians 13, v 12: “For know we see through a glass darkly.” This passage acknowledges the mystery of suffering, which is where I’d stop if I was giving the sermon.

Then he talks about the Parable of the Prodigal (Luke 15), about a man who loses his possessions and is brought low, which brings him to repentance and redemption.

“We should rejoice in our trials,” Pastor Fowler says. “They mirror the spiritual battles in the heavenly realm. Perhaps our adversities are actually blessings. And how do we define blessing? What does it mean to be blessed?”

“For the Christian, holy and blameless in the eye of God, death is the ultimate victory. He is secure and sealed away. This is a blessing.”

I’m certain it all makes theological sense, but I wonder if this kind of talk helped the depressed man. I want to know how he is doing.

It is a beautiful morning. The temperature is in the mid sixties and wild daffodils are scattered in the ditches next to the road. Rev. Bob, Dr. Jim, John Raymer and I drive two miles south of Phil Campbell on 237 and turn right on a dirt road, roll slowly past a burnt-out house and pull up a few hundred yards later in front of a large mobile home.

Shalecia Bonner, a graceful young woman wearing a faded army cap, emerges from the trailer. John asks her to tell us about her experience during the tornado.

She was in another town when the tornado hit, at her daughter’s karate class. When they got back to Phil Campbell, her house and her mother’s place were gone.

“My daughter just jumped out of the car and ran down the road crying for my mother. Fortunately, mom was okay.”

She is a single mother, back now two years from Iraq. She tells us she trained as a diesel mechanic in the army but was transferred into a Special Forces unit that went out on night patrols.

“That must have been very difficult.”

“I kind of liked it,” she says and smiles.

Ms. Bonner drives a motorcycle and owns a truck. Like most of the people here, she enjoys fishing and hunting. She has three dogs and a cat.

Our task today is to rip out the skeletal frame of a carport next to the mobile home. We are joined by John Porter, and after some discussion we lasso the main beam. John Raymer climbs up a ladder holding a sawzall and cuts the beam. No one is injured, except that just before lunch Jim Kern steps into a huge pile of dog feces.

After lunch we attach sheet metal skirting to the mobile home. The trailer rests on concrete blocks about four feet off the ground, and the skirting will provide insulation against cold seeping through the floor in the winter and the heat during the summer. The pieces of sheet metal are light corrugated panels with sharp edges. If we aren’t careful, we get cut. We use a battery powered drill to drive the screws into the skirting and the base of the mobile home.

Tonight it’s fried chicken, baked potatoes and salad, which hits the spot after an afternoon rolling around in the dirt.

Day 4: A quick tour of the worksites, more work at Shalecia Bonner’s, supper at the Russellville First Baptist Church and a Prayer Meeting

Bob reads from Acts 9, v 36, about Dorcus, a member of an early Christian community who is mentioned only once in the Bible. She is described as “devoted to good works and acts of charity.” This is how she is remembered by her community, and Bob asks us to be mindful of the way we would like to be remembered.

On the way to Shalecia’s, Bob wants to briefly check on the progress at our four other worksites. First we visit a Church Storage Facility. Neil Adams estimates that he and his crew have done between $6,000 to $8,000 worth of electrical work on the building. At the Dry Wall House, most of the rooms have been taped and sanded. One bedroom is ready to prime. We drop by the Trim House, where Barb Clough and other team workers are painting. Carlos, the owner, is thrilled that his home is almost finished. At the Front Porch House, Chris Diccion has been working on a cement porch that was dislocated by the tornado, which shifted the beams supporting the roof over the front door entrance. He and his crew have almost completed this technically difficult job.

We’ve finished installing the top layer of sheet metal around the mobile home, and now we need to attach the layer next to the ground. This is more difficult because we have to attach the second layer to the upper panels. The job requires that one of us must get under the trailer to brace the top layer from the back so that the bottom panel can be screwed to it.

The ground underneath the trailer is dark and wet. It is home to various insects and, perhaps, small animals that bite. There is about four feet between the ground and the bottom of the trailer. In the highly unlikely event that the small concrete blocks shift, the person working would be flattened like a pancake.

Yesterday Shalecia told us she’d be glad to work under the trailer, but (aside from our sense that it wouldn’t be right to ask her to do this most unpleasant task) she’s not home. Bob, bless his heart, volunteers for the job. He cuts up some plastic sheeting to lie on, and moves under the trailer.

This evening our hosts at the Russellville Baptist Church produce a wonderful dinner for us that includes meat loaf, corn bread, cold slaw, white beans, macaroni and cheese, sweet tea, cake and ice cream and decaf coffee.

I sit across the table from a retired couple who had been in the poultry business. They tell me that at one time the plant here supplied all the Chicken McNuggets in America.

After dinner, there is a Prayer Meeting in the chapel. Jim Kern and I both attend, along with around fifty other people. When we enter we’re given a list of people who have requested prayers along with the reasons for the prayers—cancer, shingles, a knee replacement, burns rehab. Births and deaths are also noted.

After our prayers are offered, the minister delivers a short sermon where he tells us, among other things, that unless we are born again, we cannot enter the Kingdom of Heaven. I’ve never understood the ‘Born Again’ theology. I think religious understanding is a form of knowledge that requires a great deal of practice and attention. It is almost a biological unfolding. I once heard a Zen teacher say that when we meditate we ripen. Ripening is a slow process. I suppose if the Southern Baptists were Japanese Buddhists, they would be in the Sudden Enlightenment (Rinzai) School. The Gradual Enlightenment (Soto) School makes more sense to me.

Day 5: A warning from Rev. Bob, we finish up at Shalecia’s mobile home and Jim and I sit across the table from a group of Mennonite women at the Church potluck dinner in Phil Campbell

During Devotionals this morning Bob reads from 1st Corinthians 13 v 4, a sentence that begins “Love is patient.” He tells us he chose this passage because it stresses patience and “this is the day when we start to get on each other’s nerves,” although he quickly adds that everybody seems to be getting along fine. I glance furtively around the room. Everyone looks tired, but I detect no wavering on the part of our brave crew.

We return to the mobile home and are joined by Robert Schirmer, a middle school student, and Bubba, a UPS pilot. Bubba, despite his nickname, lives in the Ann Arbor area. He tells us that he once flew 28 thousand Barbie Dolls—which are made in China—out of Singapore to the U.S. in time for the Christmas rush.

Bubba and Jim Kern begin work at one end of the mobile home, Bob and I continue from the other end and Robert digs a shallow trench around the base of the trailer. Bubba is understandably reluctant to get under the trailer, so Jim Kern signs on for this gnarly job.

By late afternoon, the two crews meet. Not to inflate this relatively insignificant (in the larger scheme of things) job, but it feels to us like the coming together of the transcontinental railroad.

This evening the good people at the First Baptist Church in Phil Campbell throw a huge church supper for the Ann Arbor volunteers and the Mennonites. We are advised before dinner by John Raymer that the Mennonites do not like their pictures taken.

Jim and I would like to talk with the Mennonites. The men are recognizable by their white suspenders and similar haircuts, but there are no unoccupied chairs near them in the gymnasium. The women wear long calico dresses and small white bonnets. They sit together across the room, and there are some open seats at their table.

As we move to join them, an older Alabama lady laughs and says, “You-all better behave yourselves now!” I tell her I certainly will, but that I can’t speak for Jim.

Conversation proves to be quite difficult. When I ask one of the Mennonite women a question, she replies with as short an answer as possible. And then silence. There is no reciprocity. It doesn’t feel like we’re talking to people who are hostile. Rather, I suspect they are just not used to speaking to outsiders.

A man sitting on the other side of Jim presses the women.

“Where you Mennonites from?”


“You come all the way from Switzerland?”

No, they are from the Finger Lakes area of New York state and Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

“Do you read the whole Bible?”

They nod.

“Do you read the King James version?”


“Well, I think you girls are as conservative as I am!” he announces.

Fortunately, this awkward situation ends when someone passes over a cute baby to one of the Mennonite women. Everyone focuses on the baby, breaks into ecstatic smiles and what passes for conversation grinds to a halt.

Day 6: The empty tea cup

During our final Devotional together this morning Bob reminds us that he began the week with Matthew 25, v 40: “Just as you did for the least of these, you did it to me.” He chooses a verse from 1st John: “To you whom I love, let us go on loving together. Love your brother and sister.” It is a fitting coda for the week.

Later this morning I’m standing in the cemetery, which is on a rise next to the Baptist Church in Phil Campbell. The land is mostly rocks, mud and small clumps of grass. Some junk from the tornado is scattered into the gullies below the cemetery, sheet metal and other debris still entangled in the bushes, and I see mobile homes and wrecked trees in the near distance. Despite the sunny morning, this is a desolate and depressing scene.

Given the problematic economy in northern Alabama, I'm not sure why anyone would rebuild here after the tornado. At first glance, it appears to me that life in Phil Campbell is far more difficult than it is where I come from. How much of the Southern Baptist imagination is a reflection of this? Their religion is certainly more Manichaean than my own. Everything is either light or dark. There doesn't appear to be any room for nuance, but perhaps nuance falls by the wayside when people have fewer resources.

How much of our world view is shaped by circumstance and by what we believe we need in order to survive?

I don’t think I understand the religious and social commitments of these resilient people. I do know if I can't learn to withhold my preconceptions and projections, I'll probably misunderstand everything.

And then it’s like Leonard Cohen’s line about Jesus in his song Suzanne: He sank beneath your wisdom like a stone.

I recall a story Paul Reps tells in Zen Flesh, Zen Bones about Zen Master Nan-in (1868-1912), who invited a university professor who wanted to discuss Zen with him, to tea. Nan-in poured the professor’s cup to the top and then kept on pouring.

“No more will go in!” the professor shouted.

“Like this cup you are full of your opinions,” Nan-in said. “How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The other night the Baptist preacher said this another way: “To be meek means to be teachable.”

This is the gift I received in Phil Campbell. This is what I learned here.


The Theology of the Hammer, by Millard Fuller. The founder of Habitat for Humanity describes the theology behind this transformative movement.

“Sweet Lullaby” Alabama Tornado April 27 2011, by Tammaca Bevis. Available on YouTube. This is a sentimental, emotionally raw song that works as a result of the hard-edged earnest voice of Ms. Bevis. It’s an example of what music critic Greil Marcus called “the old, weird America.” If you purchase “Sweet Lullaby” on iTunes, the proceeds go to the Alabama Tornado Relief funds.

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