Pastor's Pastor

Lessons from a tragedy

I learned some valuable lessons from the '94 Los Angeles earthquake

James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

Earthquake! If the word sounds ominous, the experience is even more so. At 4:31 a.m., January 17, Sharon and I were nearly thrown off our hotel bed. During the next few seconds of horror we simultaneously held each other, groped for a light, tried to assimilate what was hap pening and prayed aloud for deliverance. At times like that, 35 seconds can feel like a lifetime.

We have always believed earth quakes are a sign of Jesus' coming, but this one seemed like the end of the world itself. Surviving the '94 Los Angeles earthquake will remain in our memories long after the "city of angels" is reconstructed.

In those first moments after the tremors quieted, we rejoiced to be alive and unharmed even as we struggled to replace items that had fallen to the floor and to bring about order out of the chaos surrounding us. Our natural conclusion was to assume that every one else was as secure as ourselves. Even television stations initially re ported that damage was relatively in significant as they projected their own experience onto the whole. Despite on going significant after-shocks, the early conclusion was that most of Los Angeles had escaped and little lasting dam age had occurred.

Only the dawn and the subsequent discoveries of dead bodies and various tragedies brought the real horror to reality—a devastating earthquake had taken another major toll on this metropolitan area that has suffered only recently riots, fires, floods, and land slides, adding to the usual problems of crime and destruction rampant in today's urban society.

Having survived this quake, we have learned some lessons.

The first view is usually inaccurate. Our assumption that all had escaped harm was natural as we projected our own experience onto the whole milieu. Our error, of course, was to reduce the total tragedy to our own experience. Because we had no more than emotional trauma, it was easy to believe that others were just as secure. In retrospect, we realize that we repeat such false assumptions in various circumstances when we measure others only by ourselves and our own limited experience.

There have been earthquakes far more deadly in which thousands have perished. But because this is the worst we have personally survived, it was easy to associate more trauma to this than to any other tragedy. Perhaps that is what the quipster meant who said, "the only exercise some people get is jumping to conclusions."

With the arrival of full information, our analysis changed. Our conclusions formed in fantasy were changed by the reality that others had suffered significant loss and that at least 60 lives ended at the very moment we had been praying for ours to be spared.

Things change. No matter what security we provide for ourselves, no matter what caution we might person ally exhibit, forces beyond our control can swiftly alter the best plans. The past few years have demonstrated globally how quickly governments and social structures turn unstable or even vanish. How correct is the observation that earth's final movements will be rapid!

Priorities change. If I were asked to calmly analyze what I might take from my home if I were forced to leave, what I might select would be far different than if I were given only moments to flee a home that was collapsing about me. I will long remember the anguished mother who said all she really wanted from her destroyed home were photographs of her children and mementoes of her marriage.

Emergencies bring out the best (and worst) in people. Los Angeles abounds with thousands of individuals who saw a need and did something about it. Naturally, government and organized relief agencies, including Adventist Disaster Relief, moved quickly to bring aid. But help also came from individuals. From those who opened their homes to shelter others to those who rescued disoriented pets, the city's trauma was met by the quiet heroics of ordinary people who under stood that they could not change the world, but recognized that they could make a difference one person at a time.

Not everyone was helpful. Hundreds took advantage of the tragedy, gouged prices of basic supplies, or looted the remains of businesses and homes. We still live in a world of sin and, until Jesus restores all things, other crises will reveal those who care only for themselves. Innocents will still suffer and the littlest victims will still suffer the most. That is the tragic reality of sin.

Others face greater disasters than me. Despite returning home to savage cold and a day in the emergency hospital from falling on ice, I still am blessed compared with those who lost every thing. My challenges are minor com pared to theirs. My privilege is to recognize their need and to employ my resources to bring beneficial change, one person at a time!

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James A. Cress is the Ministerial Secretary of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists.

April 1994

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