The most powerful experience I had on a Friends Disaster Service (FDS) trip to Hyde County, N.C., was also the most foul and unpleasant. A large part of our work was removing heating ducts and insulation from houses in the area of Swan Quarter that had been flooded after hurricane Isabel. In some places the water lines were still visible on the sides of houses, with crusted sea grasses clinging to the walls almost five feet above the ground. This flooding had left heating ducts full of water, and rendered insulation under people’s houses useless and molding. It was up to FDS to remove the waterlogged materials for folks who could not afford to pay someone to do it for them.
The crawl space of a recently flooded house, let me tell you, is one of the more odious places one could wish to be. Hanging pieces of wet and rotting fiberglass insulation not only make movement difficult but the tiny glass fibers permeate everything, leaving itching, stinging particles in one’s clothes, eyes, and ears. Plastic ductwork full of putrid stews of floodwater and debris creates an increasingly soupy work environment. I would not wish this on anyone.
Yet in the midst of this most unpleasant of places, I had a sudden pang of empathy. I realized that it is extremely rare for a privileged white American from an educated background to be under a flood-damaged house. I felt an amazing appreciation for the legion of immigrants, minorities, and other marginalized people in our society who must face work like this every day. I realized that when I left that hellhole, I could look forward to a warm shower that would once again reveal how white my skin is.
I could look forward to pats on the back and the affirmation of people giving me special acknowledgment for doing work that would bring an immigrant nothing but scorn. The irony was this: if the people we were working for could have afforded to have someone do this work for them, it would have been another person of color. Because they couldn’t, they were getting a small group of privileged people who blustered in with fine equipment and expensive vehicles to do it for them. In this injustice I felt a tremendous spiritual connection with the people for whom we were working.
The FDS men themselves were an interesting lot. Not all of them were well off, though some were. In our conversations they professed that their conviction to do this work came from Jesus. They felt that Jesus rewarded them spiritually for their labors, and that this fulfillment kept them coming back. I was struck as they spoke by how detached and self-fulfilling this attitude seemed to me. I wish in no way to diminish their tremendous efforts, but I was struck that their dedication to the Lord Jesus Christ seemed to perpetuate the type of lord/subject, dominator/dominated relationship that I believe left the people of Hyde County so destitute in the first place. While the outward wrath of God in the form of a hurricane did not distinguish between rich and poor, we came to bring our privilege to bear upon these people with little regard for the social dynamic our attitude supported. I know that the people we helped were appreciative, but I doubt they had the freedom to be anything else.
This trip was a spiritual journey in many ways; it has strengthened my religious conviction toward social justice and at the same time has left me with many questions about my faith. My place in society as a privileged man is core to both my social and spiritual identity, and this trip illustrated for me just how inextricably these two are intertwined. I am grateful for the experience.