American Goodness and Generosity in the Aftermath of a Texas Tornado

On December 26, an F4 tornado tore through my community of Rowlett, Texas.  After killing eight people in cars near the intersection of Interstate 30 and the George W. Bush turnpike, the twister destroyed dozens of homes in Garland and Rowlett.  As the tornado approached, my wife, our three daughters, and our dog huddled in an interior bathroom as the sirens wailed.

Incredibly, no one was killed in the many homes and apartments destroyed as the storm moved rapidly from the southwest to the northeast around Lake Ray Hubbard.  The funnel damaged homes only 300 yards away from ours.  We lost power but suffered no harm to our home.

What we saw among our neighbors was astounding and heartbreaking.  The first F4 tornado to strike the Dallas area with such destruction was more than 50 years ago.  What I have seen in the past 100 hours is perhaps more impressive: the tremendous outpouring of neighbors loving neighbors to fill the holes created by the storm.

In many respects, what I have seen, felt, and participated in betrays the essential truths I was often taught in higher education: that American is little more than an amalgam of phobias, hatreds, bigotries, and prejudices.  Our highest calling is to recognize this and repent of these sins.

America may be far from perfect, but it is not the moral cesspool of hatred that our intellectual culture continually calls us to accept on a daily basis.

Today I walked to a nearby church – Cornerstone Church – to help with community relief.  What I saw was a reminder of America's intrinsic greatness – an outpouring of the human capacity to love another – to the point of cups overflowing with goodness.  In eight hours, I saw all manner of individuals drive to the small community church and leave water, diapers, gloves, buckets, rakes, shovels, gift cards, food, batteries, and an infinite array of things to meet the human needs that arise in such tragedies.

Love is not a sentimental feeling.  It is not mere romance.  Love is meeting the need of another person.  Again and again, I saw this web of human cooperation working to fill a gash left by this storm.  The super-abundance of what was appearing in the small church gymnasium was staggering – more water than the community could likely consume.  More diapers, more food, more buckets, and yet the supplies kept coming.  Businesses such as Tide brought independently powered washer and dryer machines for victims to launder their garments.  Duracell brought batteries for flashlights and other electronic gear.  Restaurants donated meals.  Chick-fil-A in Rowlett opened on Sunday to serve meals – something we have never seen this chain do, against the grain of its conventional honoring of a day of rest on Sunday.  Huge trucks from various businesses would show up unexpectedly with tarps and an array of supplies. 

The private outpouring was matched by the generosity and expanse of local governments.  The streets were patrolled and serviced not only by Rowlett city services.  In fact, most government vehicles were from other cities: Plano, Garland, Mesquite, University Parks, and others.  Police officers, firefighters, emergency personnel, and other government officers formed a vast municipal army to serve those in the swath of destruction.  These governments were not necessarily adjacent or immediate to Rowlett.  They came from many miles away to complete these tasks hour by hour.  Somehow, a coordinated symphony of care was carried out by a wide array of municipal governments to help these victims. 

None of this fit the preconceived judgmental categories I have been trained to cast on all public American transactions.  No one asked anyone else:  "What is your ethnicity?  Are you Christian?  Do you support Donald Trump?  Are you a Democrat?  Are you transgendered?"  The complex array of acts committed in giving and receiving did not discernibly pass through these supposedly vital and inherent lenses.

I was not a member of this church.  I had never been to the building in my life.  One day the person supervising me was Hispanic and Spanish-speaking.  He often spoke to a friend in Spanish.  He was not from the church and had traveled from another community to volunteer there.  On another day, an African-American man supervised, and he had traveled from another nearby community.  He wanted to help.  There were people from Missouri working.  There was no stable identity-driven community to judge.  There was the urgent task of meeting needs:  hungry workers, idle supplies, questions from relief workers, messes and confusion, and people in various states of want and need.  There seemed to be nothing local or indigenous about what was happening here.  By all appearances, it was human beings rising to the occasion of meeting the needs of their fellow human beings.  And they were carrying that out with rather extraordinary effectiveness, from oldest to youngest. 

In 1929, the forgotten American president Calvin Coolidge made these observations about our nation:

Perhaps one of the reasons I have been a target for so little abuse is because I have tried to refrain from abusing other people.

The words of the president have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately.  It would be exceedingly easy to set the country all by the ears and foment hatreds and jealousies, which, by destroying faith and confidence, would help nobody and harm everybody.  The end would be the destruction of all progress.  While everyone knows that evil exists, there is yet sufficient good in the people to supply material for most of the comment that needs to be made.

The only way I know to drive out evil from the country is by the constructive method of filling it with good.  The country is better off tranquilly considering its blessings and merits, and earnestly striving to secure more of them, than it would be in nursing hostile bitterness about its deficiencies and faults.

Coolidge was far closer to accurately observing the moral essence of America than the jaded intellectuals who continually invite us to travel farther and farther down the degrading spiral of cynicism about our national character.  The tragedy of the F4 tornado that destroyed homes in Rowlett and other parts of Dallas betrayed the truer character of Americans that is far from the distorted images we have presented to us by our elite.  Though far from perfect, Americans are endlessly striving to a character of selflessly to help their fellow human beings.  Their generosity and care are remarkable – even defining.

Celebrating America's goodness is not a call to arrogance or even pride – it is a challenge to rise to the moral challenge of love pursued by each and every generation.

Ben Voth is an associate professor of communication studies and director of debate at Southern Methodist University.  He is an adviser for the George W. Bush Institute and the Coolidge Foundation debate fellow.  He is also a resident of Rowlett, Texas.

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