Disastrous news rattled residents of Hawaii last Saturday. A little after eight in the morning, Hawaiians received an ominous text message with an emergency alert notification that read:
“BALLISTIC MISSILE THREAT INBOUND TO HAWAII. SEEK IMMEDIATE SHELTER. THIS IS NOT A DRILL.”
Thirty-eight minutes later, a second message came from the Emergency Management Agency, reassuring the public that the previous alert had been sent in error.
The Internet is buzzing about the story, including the reactions of those who received the alert. Emily Clagett, who was vacationing on Hawaii with her husband, was driving at the time. “We saw this Catholic church,” she said, “and we’re Catholic, so we went into the chapel to pray.” If the many articles on the web are any indication, however, prayer was the last thing on people’s minds. Most turned to their electronic devices for comfort.
“I don’t know what I’m supposed to do when something like this happens,” said Kris Fortner, a 45-year old husband and father of two young daughters, in an article on slate.com. So, naturally, he looked for answers on Twitter. Jefferson Bethke likewise “came to the conclusion there was nothing for him to do besides look to the Internet for answers.” After an initial moment of fear and panic, 43-year old Kristen Wilson, who had just moved to Hawaii a month before, said that her emotional reaction “was just to do research.”
Others had other decidedly non-religious reactions. One tourist staying at the Sheraton Maui was heard saying, “Well, if I’m going to die, I’m going to do it on the beach and have a Mai Tai,” as he walked toward the seashore. One housewife’s first concern was her cats.
It is well established that church attendance usually swells substantially in the aftermath of natural disasters and other public tragedies. In this case, however, few people reported turning to God in their ostensible final hour of life, choosing instead to consult the “Great Google.” Of course, most people began texting and calling family members with what they thought would be their final declarations of love, a natural human reaction to be sure, but also seemingly devoid of the divine.
The people of ancient Nineveh, on the other hand, repented immediately when Jonah went through the massive city announcing, “Forty days more and Nineveh shall be destroyed.” According to the first reading, the people believed immediately; “they proclaimed a fast and all of them, great and small, put on sackcloth,” a gesture of repentance. In what they thought were their last moments, their first reaction was to connect with the Lord.
It seems that you and I have a lot of work to do. Saint Paul writes that “the world in its present form is passing away,” yet few people realize it. Peter and Andrew, James and John, all dropped their nets immediately to follow Jesus. They were living regular lives in no imminent danger. Yet, they choose to change course and become disciples. As believers, we have a duty to convince the world that It’s Better in Here, not just in a catastrophe—true or false—but even when everything’s okay.
Father Roger Gustafson