Have we forgotten them already? Three weeks after Hurricane Sandy

· Hurricane Sandy, Listening

A grass roots, make-shift relief center set up by the good people of Oakwood Beach, Staten Island, NY.

As Thanksgiving approaches, many of us have begun to plan the menu for the day. The home where we will celebrate has been decided. The next few days will be a frantic swirl of grocery shopping, cleaning, and planning so we can wake up Thanksgiving morning and enjoy this warm and loving holiday.

At the same time, tens of thousands of New York and New Jersey residents, people no different than you and me, will wake up after another night of fitful rest. There will be a chill in their bones because the furnace in their building was destroyed by salt water and sludge. For many, electric stoves still have no power, so these families will not be cooking Thanksgiving dinner. And still more have seen their choice of celebrating at “home” washed away, perhaps permanently.

Over the last few days I’ve been to Staten Island to donate goods from St. Patrick’s parish in Highland Mills, spent time working out of a Brooklyn church operating under the “Occupy Sandy” movement, and walked the streets of Coney Island helping distribute food and other goods.

Seeing the devastation of this hurricane on television and in newspapers can be horrifying. But for me, the greater horror was looking into the eyes of despair. When you hear need spoken directly and personally, for something as simple as a warm blanket, it is hard to come away unmoved. It is hard to not find yourself committed to taking action until the horror is gone.

Many of us refer to those impacted by Hurricane Sandy as “victims,” “the needy,” “the less fortunate.” We lament their situation and say prayers for them. We ask our Facebook friends to “keep them in your thoughts.” We load buses with food and donations.

These are all honorable activities. But as we approach our annual and sacred day of gratitude, as the shopping madness of the 2012 holiday season descends upon us, I struggle to understand why with 300 million people in our country, with the largest economy in the world and corporations powerful enough to design, manufacture and ship products all over the globe, so many of our fellow citizens are still living in the squalor of Hurricane Sandy.

We are a blessed nation, and I am eternally grateful that my Italian grandparents chose to come to this country. At first, they lived in the squalor of despair too. But slowly, with help, they raised themselves up. When my mother was alive, she used to tell the story of how during the Great Depression the German landlords of their Brooklyn building would purchase Christmas presents for her family because my grandmother and grandfather couldn’t afford to do it themselves.

I used to wonder why a family, so very different in culture and language, was able to feel such compassion for my mother’s family. What I realize now having been down to the areas Sandy destroyed is that when you look into the eyes of another human, when you observe that their hopes and dreams are the same as yours, you cannot help but see them as your equals and act with unconditional mercy.

Twenty six years ago, if you were so inclined to listen to the radio at about this time of year, you might have heard these words: “We Americans understand that there are no substitutes for gifts of service given from the heart.”

These words were part of Ronald Reagan’s annual Thanksgiving radio address. They echo the sentiments of another great president, John Fitzgerald Kennedy. In 1963, Kennedy said, “As we express our gratitude, we must never forget that the highest appreciation is not to utter words, but to live by them.”

For many, these sentiments are a speed bump in the race to Christmas, Chanukah and New Year’s Eve. We spend little time reflecting on them and seeing where we can enable action from them.

Recovery efforts are moving our families, friends and neighbors closer to lives resembling something like that before Hurricane Sandy’s rage. But there is still a very long way to go. Sheetrock needs to be pulled off of walls before the grip of mold sets in. Food needs to be transported from distribution hubs to the front lines. Frightened elderly need to be visited daily. Humans need to simply know that they have not been forgotten.

The last few weeks of every year we decry how the holiday rush steals our time. My prayer of gratitude this week includes the hope that as we reflect on all the grace and mercy in our lives, we can dedicate a day, or two, or more, to volunteer for someone who has much less than us to be grateful for, and give life to the spirit of Thanksgiving.

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