If we sat down to list all of the major disasters of the past decade, most of us would be hard-pressed to recall all of significant earthquakes, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, and fires that have caused great loss and suffering to humanity. Perhaps that is because there have been so many catastrophic events that have caught headlines and touched our hearts.  We often give money and relief supplies in the time of crisis, but unless the disaster is part of our own experience, we get on with our lives and put it out of our minds once the headlines fade.

The earthquakes in Haiti and Chile are the latest examples of this. Both have much to grieve and rebuild. Haiti, long a desperately poor and struggling nation, has a much more difficult road ahead. But after the initial outpouring of aid and prayer, how many of us will reach out to do more as the story recedes from view?

I was reminded of this while attending the annual convention of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association in March in New Orleans. It has been four+ years since Hurricane Katrina swamped the levees, causing massive flooding and destruction. As the region slowly inches back to normalcy, many of the poorest among the Gulf Coast residents are still struggling to rebuild, lacking resources to do it on their own. As we learned together, the deep and long-standing racial divide in the area is a sad factor in this problem. But it is not all of it; issues of class and privilege run as deep undercurrents in this troubling problem. The economics and politics of the region are other complications.

My rabbinic colleagues spent a day doing rebuilding work and then devoted time to processing the experience. Many of the rabbis spoke of the moving feeling that we were actually “doing something,” and recalled the words of A.J. Heschel, who spoke of marching in the civil rights marches as “praying with his feet.” We all feel so much more engaged in helping to repair the world when we use our bodies and our senses, and our efforts are personal. These experiences are far more transformative and memorable than sending checks or coats or even offering sermons about the need to help.

Yet, we know that our efforts are not sufficiently transformative for those who need our help. We come home to our comfortable lives and they remain, in a slow-motion arc toward hopefully completing the goal. Certainly, all of the efforts of volunteers have been cumulatively very significant in advancing the recovery. To those who suffered the loss of homes without back-up resources, our hands-on help has been crucial.  One resident told an RRA team that our one day of effort on his house accomplished what he could do in one month, as he is rebuilding his home himself, with limited time and money. Stories like this make the effort feel very meaningful. But in the end, the fact that he still has so long to go, as do so many others who lost everything, tells us that we need to do more.

This is where advocacy comes in. There is a big difference between crisis intervention and advocacy for systemic change. The former is needed, but usually short-lived and limited in value. It leaves many problems still very much intact. The latter is transformative, like the repair of a fracture with structural strengthening and reinforcements. The former is relatively easy, and often makes us feel fulfilled; we “did good.”  But the latter is empowering for those who need it most, and it gets to the heart of problems that need to be fixed. While advocacy is much harder to do and to sustain, it is where our capacities are most stretched and applied, and is ultimately more satisfying for us as well.

We talked about the challenge of doing effective advocacy.  While we live in an increasingly individualist culture, social justice work is best accomplished within communities, through collaborative efforts. There are only so many letters to our government any of us will dash off sitting at our desks by ourselves. But faith communities can join hands, raising issues through education and using our voices together for common purpose. It was an inspiring conversation. We can join hands and transform the world, together.  Let’s keep trying.

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