For more than a day now, the people of my hometown in Texas have been on a mission. A little boy was reported missing. He had slipped, barefoot, out of the house. Nine years old, with autism, he did not have a lot of survival skills. And while I grew up in a suburb of one of the largest cities in the country, the environment has woods, fields, and small bodies of water. Creeks of varying sizes wind through the area, and ponds and catch reservoirs are common. So while there are a lot of people, there are a lot of wild places that scared little boys can hide. And get hurt.
I've been watching from a distance, via Facebook feeds of old classmates and the city police department. A message was sent out to people who lived in the area where the little boy disappeared, to keep an eye out for him. And the message spread. People set out into the night to go look for him. People were desperate to find out where they could report for search duty. After they cleaned up from a day of feasting and tucked their children into bed, parents set out to look for a neighbor's child. A stranger's son, really. It turns out he's from Connecticut, visiting family in the area. Nobody knew him or his parents.
But they knew the fear. "There but for the grace of God go I." Every parent has felt the panic of not knowing where their child is. For most of us, it lasts a moment or two. And then we find them hiding in the clothes rack in the store. Or sitting quietly in our closet, trying on all of our shoes. Or siting on the front porch. Watching the traffic fly down the street, but thankfully staying in the safe confines of the porch. We breathe a prayer of thanksgiving, and vow never to let that happen again. But we know that it can. Children are curious. And fast. And our parental attention is drawn in so many directions.
So they put gas in their ATVs, found their flashlights and lanterns, and set out to help. The police had to ask people to stop coming. There were just too many volunteers.
"I thought of his parents. How terrified they must be. I just had to do something."
"Home from the search. Barely slept. But I can't imagine his parents slept, either."
The people were worried. They needed to help.
It was the same response from neighbors in Louisiana after the flooding a few months ago. Nicknamed the "Cajun Navy", anyone with a working boat set out to check in on their neighbors. Sure, the local officials and rescue crews were hard at work plucking people from the water. But it was the noncommissioned fleet that could be everywhere at the same time. Not because they were asked to by people in charge. But because they cared about their neighbors, and needed to help them.
I have no data. But I'd make a bet that the Cajun Navy made more rescues than the National Guard did. (Nothing against our wonderful Guard members. But there are only so many of them to go around...)
The recent election has saddened me. The tone of the commentary before and after has been harsh, even cruel. Accusations of racism and all forms of hatred have flown across both sides of the aisle. I've even seen people questioning how one can even call themselves Christian if they voted for the other politician. The heightening of the "other"-ness has been frightening. Anyone who voted for your candidate is good, anyone who voted for the "other" is evil.
But the most recent events in Pearland have encouraged me. People have responded like the missing child was one of their own. He did not belong to an "other" family. His absence was their personal loss. And they had to help. This is the America I grew up in. People house total strangers fleeing from a hurricane. People give to those who have nothing, even if they have little to spare. People do the lawn care and winter shoveling of the frail lady next door and accept no payment but a hug. This is the America that I have always known. And despite what some might say, it still is great. It is the willingness to take on another's burdens and hurts and try to help that makes our country great. And the more we act on our empathy, even without being asked, the better we make our country.
So we obviously don't all agree on what our government's priorities should be. But each person trying to ease the burdens of those around them will do more collectively than even the most popular and powerful politician. America the Great is us. It is us setting out into the dark to find a stranger's little boy. It is us revving up the fishing boat to rescue people and pets and deter looters. It is us buying warm socks for the guy we see panhandling on our way to work every morning. It is us imagining the pain and fear of those who suddenly feel targeted by hatred and violence, and reaching out to them. It is us refusing to settle into the easy role of "me" vs. "others".
Please pray for the family of Marcus. Please pray for the people of Pearland. They're worried, and tired, and they want to find that little boy safe and sound. And please pray for all of us. The election has left so many wounded, so many hard and cold, so many worried. We need empathy for each others' burdens. America is not our leaders. America is us. And together, we are great.