It's rare that an urban area is struck by a tornado. This weekend, neighborhoods on the north side of Minneapolis were devastated by a powerful storm, destroying hundreds of homes, injuring dozens, and killing one person. Relief efforts have kicked off in full force with the city, the Red Cross, and local church-based organizations taking the lead to clear trees and debris from the streets, and provide temporary shelter and hot meals to those who are now homeless in their own neighborhood.
When disaster strikes near your own backyard, the impulse to spring into action is a basic one. Meeting human needs is important. People will need food tonight around 6 pm, and then again tomorrow morning, and they'll need lunch, too, while they sort out what to do next. With tools like Facebook and Twitter, information is quickly broadcast and requests easily fulfilled, while offers to help from outsiders pour in by the hundreds. When lives are at stake, complete strangers take time off of work to pitch in and resources are mobilized to provide relief to those who are suffering. It's the very definition of what it means to be a community and to follow Christ.
But for me, that impulse didn't sit well. It's not that I lack compassion or the resources to make some sort of a difference in the midst of chaos. I actually like getting dirty with hands-on work and feeling that satisfaction when a task is completed. What doesn't sit well is that I know the neighborhoods of North Minneapolis are amongst the poorest in the entire state. I would argue that lives are at stake not just on the day after a historic storm, but every single day.
The disasters of poverty, educational inequality, racial discrimination, unemployment, home foreclosure, and violence are daily realities in North Minneapolis. These communities are not solely defined by hardship, but they are real challenges compounded by a natural disaster and that will likely hamper the neighborhoods' ability to rebuild. Catastrophes of a social nature don't attract the news crews or the outpourings of charity that a tornado's destruction will draw, but their impacts are far-reaching and bear lifelong consequences.
While storms don't discriminate, people and systems do. And generations of harmful urban policy and widespread neglect will not be undone by single acts of compassion for a neighborhood in need.
What if we were compelled, with the same amount of force, to do justice? What if we took a day off of work, just once a year, to participate in an organized protest or speak to our elected officials about poverty and inequality? What if there were hundreds of Facebook posts asking not, "Where can I help?" but "How can I walk with you in this journey?"
It's my hope and prayer in the midst of struggle that those of us in the position to help will do so with equal attention paid to justice and charity. Disasters, both human-made and natural ones, occur in all of our backyards. We can use our hands and our voices to bend the universe a bit more toward justice for all God's children.
Allison Johnson is a congregational partnership organizer at Plymouth Church Neighborhood Foundation, a faith-based affordable housing developer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She is the former campaign manager of Christians for Comprehensive Immigration Reform at Sojourners.