Jewish World Review Sept. 9, 2005 / 5 Elul, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Voices after the storm | LITTLE ROCK, Ark. —Sometimes, after folks are struck a staggering blow, the first faculty to return may be a sense of proportion. Bereft of all we own, we suddenly become aware of all we have —like our lives. And friendly neighbors. Even friendly strangers.

"This is really a good place right now," Jennifer Landry, 48, was saying as she sat on a picnic bench at the United Pentecostal Church camp at Redfield, Ark., just one of the tens of thousands of refugees who have found sanctuary in Arkansas.

"Where we come from, you couldn't ask for anything better than this," said Dion France, 44, a chef out of New Orleans. "And I mean that from the bottom of my heart," he added. He may have been thinking of the unthinkable scenes he'd witnessed, including the horrors in the Superdome, where so many had sought refuge and found another Hell.

"To see these old people die in front of your face," said Dale Warren, 48, another refugee glad to be out of the dome, "you know, I mean, they deserved better than that for all the years they were here, to just be shoved in (a) cooler with no electricity. It was just terrible."

The memories will haunt. Once the immediate crisis is confronted so the long-range ones can be tackled, maybe we'll have a better idea of how all this could have come to pass in an American city in 2005.

Dion France was thinking of settling in Arkansas. "We might find a job out here," he was saying, "try to make a new life for ourselves. I love it here. I love how they treat people."

"Welcome to our state," Arkansas' governor, Mike Huckabee, told the folks rolling into the church camp. But where's the money going to come from to feed and clothe and house them, and make sure their kids are in school?

The governor's response: "I try to look at every one of these kids as if this were my kid. Everything else is easy after that. If we start worrying about what it's going to cost to educate them, what it's going to cost the social services, that's staggering. A lot of things we're doing may be reimbursable (by the federal government.) It still comes down to what is the right thing to do and then do it. The money will work out."

Have faith, and the loaves and fishes will be provided. (Did I mention that Gov. Huckabee is also a Baptist preacher?)

The camp at Redfield had been closed after the summer, but it opened lickety-split as people streamed in. Between 150 and 200 volunteers materialized to help the newcomers get settled. "We couldn't get blankets," said the church's district director, "and I put an e-mail out at midnight. And by 8 a.m., we had enough blankets." Local law enforcement was there to provide security in case problems arose. None did.

One group of about 90 refugees was on the road to Damascus, Ark., where shelter was waiting for them at the Blass Scout Reservation, which would make an ideal shelter for the elderly or people with medical problems. True to their motto, the Boy Scouts were prepared. "The beds are made," said Bill Price, program director of the Quapaw Council. "The food is in the refrigerator. We've got a number of people on standby."

And then there are the refugees who are eager to pitch in. "I'll be here awhile," said Gilbert Dennis, 75, after arriving at Redfield and shaking the governor's hand. "So if you need an able body, I'm ready to help. I'll clean up, whatever. I'm not too proud."

For those interested in such things, most of the volunteers at Redfield are white, most of the refugees black, but to quote Dion France, "There ain't no color out here. It's time for everybody to pull together."

Come to think, it's always that time, isn't it? It's just that when trouble strikes, it becomes all the clearer what an expensive burden racial discord has always been.

These are only some of the voices out of the whirlwind. All are revealing in their own way. The good and bad, the inspiring and appalling in each of us, it all comes out in moments of crisis. And some messages aren't expressed in words but deeds. A loving hug, a warm handshake, a cuppa coffee, a hot meal . . . .

Here in Arkansas, we have just begun to help one another, and the same thing is happening all across the good ol', little-worse-for-the-wear U. S. of A. We've been rode hard and put away wet, but we're going to make it through this, as we've made it through so many things. Then, oh boy, oh boy, we can start yelling at each other again.

But, please, not till then.

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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