I’ve been out doing errands around Baton Rouge this morning. It’s great to see handmade signs in shopping center parking lots, saying things like SHELTER DONATION DROP-OFF POINT. People are really, really pitching in.
I’ve been complaining on Twitter and here about the relative lack of attention the national media have been giving this disaster given its immensity and severity. A friend of ours who has been doing Cajun Navy rescue runs in Livingston Parish told us that he’s seen bodies floating in the floodwaters there. It’s bad. It’s real bad. And for people farther south and west of Baton Rouge, it’s getting worse.
But here’s a story you should know about. It shatters the standard media narrative about America. And it involves a member of this blog’s community. Members, actually, because this also involves Brother Ignatius (see above), the guest master at the Benedictine monastery in Norcia.
You’re going to want to sit down for this one. I’m literally typing through tears.
Ryan Booth comments here from time to time. He’s a personal friend too, and an avid follower of the Benedict Option. We’ve been talking about it for as long as I’ve known him, which is just about as long as we’ve been back in Louisiana. He owns three Mathnasium tutoring centers in Baton Rouge. Ryan is a white, churchgoing, Southern Baptist, conservative, heterosexual male. Ryan has been a public school math teacher, and now tutors kids in math through his small business. In 2014, he resigned his post on the Central Committee of the Louisiana GOP in disgust over what he regarded as the party’s demagoguery over Common Core. Read his public statement here. It says, in part:
While part of my decision to quit my political involvement has to do with disillusionment, a much bigger part of it is the higher calling that God has put on my life. Over the last few years, I have increasingly felt God pulling me into full-time ministry. Over the last few years, I’ve taught an adult Sunday school class at my church and led our Guatemala mission trips, but the call goes beyond that. In response to that call, I have applied to New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary to begin a Masters of Divinity degree in January, attending part time at first and commuting twice a week.
But I really can’t wait until January to begin my studies. For one thing, I took 18 hours of ancient Greek as an undergrad, and I can save myself six credit hours and $1000 if I can relearn that language on my own by January. But, beyond that, I am ready now to more fully devote myself to my calling, but I have a very limited amount of free time, because I still need to work over 50 hours every week at Mathnasium, and especially because we plan to open a third location in the fall. Oh, and yeah, I need time to be a good father.
So, I really need to “cast off that which hinders me,” and politics hinders me. I don’t have the time, and no tax cut ever saved anyone’s soul. I need to stay off Facebook in general, but I especially need to give up my habit of reading and commenting on political issues for a couple of hours every day. So, this is a farewell of sorts, for now. I have other work to do.
Ryan has not yet been able to start his seminary studies, in part, or maybe mostly, I’m not sure, over money issues. But that’s where his heart is, not in politics. He does not consider himself a Republican any more, but is every bit the conservative — especially religious and social conservative — that he ever was. He and I talk often about religious liberty.
With that as background, let me tell you what he did yesterday. I interviewed him earlier today about it, because it was just so astonishing and inspiring.
Because Ryan is a close friend with a real interest in the Ben Op, I shared with him the most recent draft of The Benedict Option, which I’m close to finishing (publication date is March 14, 2017). He has been reading the manuscript at my request, to make suggestions for the final revision. Here’s what he told me this afternoon, verbatim:
I was reading, among other things, your post about what’s going on at Celtic [one of the shelters in Baton Rouge], and knew from that, and other people, about the work going on there,” he said. “It’s funny, Rod, because I had just read in your draft the part where you were talking about the monks’ hospitality. In the manuscript, you quote Brother Ignatius quoting Matthew 25:35, where Jesus says, ‘I was a stranger and I took you in.
It occurred to me, Why should we care for people at a giant shelter when we can take them into our homes? I have room to take a couple of people in.
Ryan is divorced, and shares custody of his daughter Grace with his ex-wife. Grace’s mother just bought a new house, and spent a lot of money and effort furnishing it. It’s now underwater. Ryan saw to it that his former in-laws made it to safety. If I understood correctly, his former wife is taking care of them in another Louisiana town, where they are not under flood threat. Grace is with her dad. Let’s pick the story back up with Ryan:
Grace and I went to Celtic, looking for people we could offer a bedroom to. We live on the third floor, so we couldn’t take anybody frail or infirm, which is what we would have preferred. There’s no elevator, so we had to get people who could climb the stairs. We don’t have room for a big family, but for one or two people.
We found an African-American woman about 50, who looked like she needed a place to stay. We asked her, but she thought for a second and said, “You know, there are a lot of people who need it more than me.” I thought maybe she might have some hesitation about going into a stranger’s home, but Grace could see that the lady was tearing up when she said it.
Think about that. Here is a woman who has lost her home, and who is living in a shelter. A man and his daughter come in and offer her a bed and a good, safe, comfortable place to stay. She thinks about it, but says no, there are people needier than I am. Ryan again:
It took us a while to find somebody who wasn’t part of a big family. Grace and I weren’t going to take a single man, which may not be the best fit for our home, with just me and Grace there. Since the Salvation Army men’s shelter had flooded out, you could tell there are a lot of people at Celtic who would normally be at the Salvation Army. We couldn’t risk taking one of them in.
Eventually we found Jacob and Josh [Note: I’ve changed their names to protect their privacy — RD]. They were very eager to come. They had not slept the night before because of all the crying babies around them. They had been rescued by boat. They live in a second floor apartment, so most of their personal belongings are probably okay. They’re still asleep right now. We’re going to go over and check in a little while. I think the water has gone down now.
When people leave the shelter, they have to check out with the Red Cross, so the Red Cross can keep track of who’s where. When they were checking out, Josh gave his real name: Annabella.
Ryan Booth — a straight, Southern Baptist conservative — had inadvertently invited a female-to-male transgender and his boyfriend into his home. Did that give Ryan pause?
“Not at all,” he told me. “In a sense, the opportunity to be a witness to somebody who may be more unlike me might make my witness more powerful.”
I told Ryan that a lot of people would think that someone who fits his demographic profile would want to have nothing to do with someone who fits Josh’s demographic profile. I added, “It sounds to me like you didn’t take Jacob and Josh in in spite of being a traditional Christian, but you did it because you are a traditional Christian. Am I right?
“That’s exactly why I did it,” Ryan said. He added that he wanted to make sure Jacob and Josh knew that he was a Christian, so they wouldn’t be freaked out by that. They weren’t, or if they were, they were too tired to show it.
“I told them that this is what Jesus told us to do,” Ryan said. “It’s that Benedictine hospitality. Brother Ignatius in the Benedict Option book says that when we take somebody in, we see Christ in them. They bear the image of God. Again, it’s just like Jesus said in Matthew: when you take in someone who has nowhere to go, you are taking Him in.”
Has Ryan changed his mind about moral values and cultural politics? Not at all, nor should he. Despite what many liberals think, Ryan’s the sort of traditional Christian who believes what he does about sex, sexuality, and gender identity not because he hates the Other — he plainly does not — but because he believes Scripture is true. Understand it clearly, though: Ryan is an Evangelical Christian who believes all Scripture is true, including this part, from Matthew 25:
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
“It’s not my place to judge them. In these circumstances, it’s my place to love them.”
That, my friends, is the Benedict Option. No tax cut gave shelter to these refugees, a transgendered man and his boyfriend. A conservative Southern Baptist and his young daughter did. Because those strangers needed it, because Ryan saw the image of God in them, and because Ryan is a servant of the Lord.
Folks, this kind of thing is happening all over south Louisiana, right now! Yes, the national media are not (yet) paying the kind of attention a disaster this vast deserves, but they’re not all like that. NPR’s Debbie Elliott had a great report on All Things Considered yesterday, reporting from the Celtic Media Center soundstage shelter. Look at this excerpt, in which she interviews Augustine and Ngozi Amechi:
ELLIOTT: The Amechis, originally from Nigeria, live in east Baton Rouge. Their Park Forest subdivision is under water.
A. AMECHI: Oh, we were trapped.
ELLIOTT: They were rescued by boat at 4 in the morning on Sunday. Amechi used a flashlight to signal out the window for help as the water rose thigh-high in their house.
A. AMECHI: We didn’t know the extent of the disaster until we were on the boat. And all the streets in the neighborhood were all flooded almost to the roof of the house, you know? It was terrible. It was just an experience.
ELLIOTT: They lost everything, but Ngozi Amechi is thankful they got out alive.
N. AMECHI: My thanks goes to those boats men, those boat – they worked day and night…
A. AMECHI: Right.
N. AMECHI: …Throughout all this period.
ELLIOTT: The Amechis say they thought the flooding would stop when the rain did, but then the water just kept rising. That’s a scenario playing out across south Louisiana now as rivers, streams, lakes and canals overflow their banks. Governor John Bel Edwards warns the worst might not be over.
JOHN BEL EDWARDS: So we are still in the response phase. We’re about saving lives. We’re going to get to making people comfortable and looking after their property.
ELLIOTT: The National Guard and the Coast Guard are helping first responders, but hordes of volunteers have also launched boats to conduct rescues. Officials have evacuated several nursing homes and hospitals. The facilities that have remained open are having trouble remaining fully staffed because so many people are affected by the flood.
Debbie Baham is a home health worker whose apartment complex in Amite was destroyed. She’s now in a shelter in that small town east of Baton Rouge.
DEBBIE BAHAM: I mean, we lost everything. I got up at 5 o’clock in the morning to go to work, went in, and the water was just coming in. I mean it just came out of nowhere.
ELLIOTT: She says the water was waist-deep when firefighters came to take them out on fire trucks.
BAHAM: I’m in a world of hurt right now, don’t know where I’m going or what’s going to happen.
BAHAM: Back at the Baton Rouge shelter, Augustine Amechi says all they can do is depend on one another.
A. AMECHI: In a disaster like this, people should thank God and know that we all are human – same race, human race, OK? And in a disaster like this, you know that people care for each other.
It’s so true! I have NEVER been more proud than to be from Louisiana as I am in these awful days. Look, the national media all found there way down here when Alton Sterling was shot and killed. But now, when thousands of black lives are shattered by catastrophic losses, where are they? If they came, and if they had eyes to see, they would know that what Augustine Amechi says is for real. We are seeing black folks and white folks rescuing each other, and caring for each other in the shelters, and even in each others’ homes. This kind of thing is happening everywhere, all around us. We are even seeing a conservative Southern Baptist man opening his apartment to a transgender man and his boyfriend, because they are strangers who needed a place to go, but also because they are not strangers at all, but neighbors, Louisianians, fellow human beings.
One of you readers, can’t remember who, chastised me recently for being too caught up in what’s going on in the media and online. Most people do not live in a world of perpetual culture war, the reader said. I know that’s true in theory, but that does not mean that the culture war is not happening, and that the decisions being made in courts, in Congress, in state legislatures, in church assemblies, in the media, and so forth, aren’t crucially important. The fact that most ordinary people are ignoring this stuff doesn’t make it unreal or unimportant, from either a conservative or a liberal point of view.
On the other hand, it is also true, as my critical reader said, that it’s much too easy for people like me to mistake what happens online and in TV Land for what’s happening in real life outside my front door. This disaster that has overtaken my community has been a mercy from God to me in this one way: it has shown me how true this is, and how much I, too, live in a bubble of my own, as much as the people in the national media that I’m now criticizing harshly. I am guilty as well. Mea maxima culpa, as they say in the Norcia monastery.
I can tell you this for sure: parts of The Benedict Option are going to be heavily revised this week, to include things that I’m seeing and learning in my own community. I’ve written there, as I’ve written on this blog, how the kind of politics that concern me now are the politics of building local community, and local community institutions. I am not saying that what happens in Washington doesn’t matter. It does matter, and we cannot be naive about that. But I’m saying that I cannot bring myself to feel much connection to those fights. I hadn’t thought of it this way till this afternoon, but what Ryan Booth did last night for those strangers is the essence of Benedict Option politics, or rather, anti-politics. Ryan is a devout churchgoing Baptist, so he knows his Bible. But it was the words of a Benedictine guest master, an Indonesian-born monk who lives in the mountains of Umbria at a monastery built over the birthplace of St. Benedict of Nursia, that moved his heart last night.
St. Benedict, born in 480, would never have known that his simple acts of fidelity to Christ as a monk in the ruins of the Western Roman Empire would one day be partly responsible for the fact that refugees Jacob and Josh found a warm, comfortable place to stay last night in flood-ravaged south Louisiana, in the home of a Christian man and his young daughter. But God knew.
Only God knows what He’s doing here in our time and place. But I know that despite my own pettiness, vanity, wrathfulness and weakness, I want to be a part of it, somehow. I want to be like Brother Ignatius, the Catholic monk, and like Ryan Booth, the Southern Baptist math teacher, because they want to be like Jesus, in all things.
Follow Ryan Booth on Twitter @brteacher — he’s going to have some great stories to tell. And by the way, for those who loved my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, and remember the stories in it about how all of St. Francisville and West Feliciana Parish came together to help Katrina refugees in 2005, you’ll be happy to know that I talked to my Starhill friend and neighbor Julie Ralph this morning. AT&T somehow got a call through. She said she was at First Baptist Church, which is a hive of activity. Lots of refugees sheltering in St. Francisville now, and all the church people in town are working hard to help. Julie says that Facebook has been immensely helpful in allowing people to get specific needs taken care of quickly. But all the technology in the world would be useless if not for spark of love that comes from the human heart.