“What was that?” I thought as I tried to rouse myself from the deep fog of sleep. The ground beneath my mat trembled again and my senses were on full alert as I grabbed for the pile of my clothing right next to my pillow. “Get up!” I called to my colleague sleeping on the mat not far from me. “It’s a tremor, get up!” In just a matter of seconds our nightgown-clad bodies were out the door of the Sunday School room and headed for the front door, shoes (socks inside) and daytime clothing in hand. We would wait to get fully dressed until we were sure it was necessary, well, except for the jackets which went on soon after crossing the threshold. It was November and chilly in the middle of the night, even in California.
A few minutes later we were able to determine that it was safe to return to our sleeping mats; it was only an aftershock and nothing more. Back on the floor of the Sunday School room, stretched out, clothing again near my head, I prayed for the children of this city. If this was hard for me, as an adult, how much worse was it for the children? I knew that some of “our kids” wouldn’t get any more sleep that night because of the fear. Kids were funny that way, really. Some went about their days as though nothing had changed in their lives and they slept well at night wherever their little bodies were laid down. Other kids found every move of the ground, be it from more aftershocks or from a large semi-truck passing by, a terror to them; fear was written on their faces. Even when it was safe to go inside, they refused and many a mother or father had to pull the sleeping gear outside to lie down with their terrified child. The majority of the children were somewhere in-between these two extremes. It was the nights that were the worst for them. They were a bit skittish during the days and startled easily with any sudden sound, even a quiet one; but, for the most part, it was just sleeping at night that was a major problem. They could sometimes go to sleep easily from the exhaustion of the day but would rarely stay asleep, waking with nightmares off and on throughout the night.
An earthquake is a great equalizer, let me tell you. Whatever socio-economic level, whatever educational achievement, or powerful influence the person may have had, when the home they were living in slipped off its foundation and they could not find all of their family members, the response was the same …fear. Fear in the night, for sure, as the ground continued to experience tremors nightly. We all feared we would be too sound asleep to wake up in time to get out of a falling structure. For many there was also fear in the daytime because it was necessary for families to be separated as they tried to return to their pre-quake routine as much as possible. When family members were spread out all over, they worried about what would happen if another quake hit and they could not find everyone. These concerns were real.
You might think that nearly two months should be long enough to get over it, right? Remember that the day the earthquake hit there was every indication that the whole twenty-four hours would end as it had begun, like any other day. There had been no warning that would prepare people as happens in a hurricane and they can decide to leave or stay. It was just suddenly upon them. On the first day of this horrible event that would change the lives of so many, finding loved ones was one of their chief concerns. In that initial chaos that followed the nearly instantaneous felling of trees, homes shifting off foundations and business buildings crumbling, family members had been scattered all over the city. Not knowing if they were okay or needing help that was not coming was a major worry. It was so difficult to find to which shelter each family member had been herded. Kids playing with friends after school were in one area, parents working in offices or businesses around town were sent to other shelters near them and the elderly family members… what had happened to them—they had been at home! Were they okay? If their home had been hit they would be in yet another shelter.
However, it had been close to two months now so things had pretty much stabilized and people were back in something resembling a routine. Kids were back in school, though some classes were held in churches and other buildings if the foundations of the classrooms were no longer safe for the children. Several businesses were a total loss so, if the adults in the family worked in one of those, he or she might still be standing in another long line to try to get some temporary, but immediate, employment in any field. There were no longer soup kitchens to feed the earthquake victims but trying to find food for the family was still difficult for many, as was finding clean water to drink.
No, I did not live in this city so near the epicenter of the 1989 earthquake that collapsed the highway overpasses near the Bay area. My missionary colleague and I were in the States at the time it happened… in Sacramento. Our hostess was mowing her back lawn and I was waiting for the start of the World Series baseball game. Though some in the city had felt some kind of movement, we had not. We responded to a need for help and our Sacramento friends drove us to this hard-hit city to volunteer for this relief effort. It turned out to be an incredible experience. Many of the memories of those ten weeks working with relief victims are so fresh in my mind, still, that it is as though it happened last week instead of twenty-two years ago! We were given the keys to the church’s fifteen-passenger van to use in our work. However, only the two front buckets seats were still in place since all the benches had been removed to make room for food and wrapped cases of clean water. Our job was to find the people who needed help and pass out the food and water. We got to know so many dear people of all ages and ethnic groups during those weeks.
Each man, woman and child quickly expressed their thanks to us and there was no doubt that they were truly grateful for the help. When our calendar let us know that Thanksgiving Day in America would soon be upon us, I longed to have a chance for each family to enjoy the traditional Thanksgiving Day dinner. The relief effort was winding down and some of our families no longer needed assistance. We were happy for them, of course, but what about the others who were still living under make-shift shelters? Or, the family who crawled through broken mayonnaise jars and all kinds of other yuck splashed all over their kitchen floor to get out of the falling house? To compound their loss even more, the breadwinner’s place of business was one of those totally destroyed in the quake. All of them were still living in the garage with a small kerosene two-burner cook stove… could they have a turkey dinner with all the trimmings? I, myself, just love turkey and this meal, in particular, is one of my favorite holiday meals. It would be such a morale booster if we could get all of these families, still living under adverse conditions, a turkey dinner… not to mention it would provide one more step along that path back to “normal” life! The fourth Thursday in November in America was always a time for celebrating blessings and returning thanks… yes, there had been losses and sadness; but, if there could be that tasty and graphic reminder that life was getting sorted out and next year would be better? How great would that be!
****Scene 2: Showers of Blessings… coming tomorrow