Tuscaloosa Alabama Service Project
By Doug Allen, Healing the Gulf Service Project Volunteer
In April 2011 a level 6 tornado tore through the town of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, destroying an almost 10-mile strip just south of the University of Alabama. The previous summer myself and my friend Bill Brown had been involved in a service project with One World Academy North America during which time we spent a week in Alabama helping victims of the BP oil spill.
We were so touched by the hospitality and spirit of the people there that we adopted LA (lower Alabama) as our second home. So when we heard about the tornado we all wanted to go back and do whatever we could to help.
The first day there we worked to clean up debris from a neighborhood of damaged houses. Anandagiri and I decided to take a walk through the neighborhood to talk to some of the people who were personally affected by the tornado.
That’s when we first learned about a woman named Clara Hamilton.
Clara Hamilton is an 81-year old woman who lived in a neighborhood where homes that were completely flattened sit beside homes that were almost unaffected. We learned from one of her neighbors that even before the tornado, Clara was very depressed.
The year before, Clara’s only daughter died of cancer at the age of 42. The death of her daughter was a devastating loss that Clara had never recovered from. Then we found out that the year before her daughter died, Clara also lost her husband. Clara’s only surviving relative was her sister. Then Clara’s sister was killed in the tornado.
The reason we even learned about Clara was because Clara’s neighbor asked Anandagiri what he did for a living. Ananda smiled his big smile and told her, “I teach people how to be happy.”
When Clara’s neighbor heard this she said, “Well I’d like to see your try to teach Clara Hamilton how to be happy. Nothing could make Clara happy after all she’s been through.”
At that moment Ananda and I both knew what we had to do … find Clara Hamilton.
The Search for Clara
Unfortunately all we knew was the incorrect address of a senior care home that Clara’s neighbor gave us.
But that didn’t stop us. Let’s just say I was determined and persistent, and began to feel very guided that we were going to find Clara and help her.
Well, one thing led to another, and sure enough we found Clara. She was living in a senior care home, and was very depressed, almost to the point of being unable to function.
But after a few minutes with Clara she began to open up. She told us all the reasons why she was depressed. Her husband died. Her daughter, who was her best friend, died of cancer. Her sister was killed in the tornado.
Then she told us about what happened to her when the tornado hit.
She said she knew it was coming and went to lay down in her bathtub to try to keep safe. She said the roar of the tornado was like nothing she ever heard. Then, in an instant, as she was trembling in her bathtub, the roof of her house was completely ripped off and she as staring up at a gray sky. It was over that fast.
And the only thing she thought in that moment was, “God, why didn’t you take me?”
At some point in her story Ananda had moved from his seat beside Clara to sitting on a coffee table directly across from her. As she told her story, Ananda brought his full attention to every word she said.
Finally, Clara, probably more out of curiosity than anything else, asked Ananda, “So what do you do?”
Ananda just beamed his big smile and replied, “I teach people how to be happy.”
I have to admit; there was a moment where I had no idea what was about to happen. That moment seemed to last forever. I had fully expected Clara to look at Ananda and say something like, “That’s impossible. Nothing can make me happy.”
But that’s not what Clara said.
Instead, Clara leaned forward, almost jumping out of her seat, and said, “Well give it to me! Tell me how to be happy! I don’t have much time. I have a bible study to go to in ten minutes.”
Ananda smiled and began by saying he’d like to tell her a story, but Clara would have none of that. She wanted to know how to be happy, and she wanted to know NOW!
Ananda just laughed, and persisted, telling a story about a family he worked with that had suffered multiple tragedies, much like Clara had. He told her how the family suffered for over a year, and how all the counseling and therapy they tried never lessened the pain of their losses.
Then he told Clara the one thing he told them to do that changed their lives. He told them to simply stop asking the question, “Why did this have to happen to me?”
Again, there was a moment of silence that seemed to last forever. I’ve seen Ananda create some amazing shifts in people. The year before Ananda totally transformed the life of a blind war veteran named Joseph Gales. But that took two hours. If this talk to Clara were a chess game, I thought Ananda’s story was a very interesting opening move, especially when, by the time he was done telling the story, it was almost time for Clara to leave.
So when Clara looked back at Ananda and said, “That’s it! All I have to do is stop asking myself that question and I’ll be happy?” we were all a bit shocked.
Ananda said, “Yes, Clara, it’s that simple. That’s all you need to do.”
Clara said, “That’s it! I’m done! I’m never going to ask myself that again. Thank you, I have to go to my bible class now.”
Even Ananda was surprised. He had never seen anybody “get it” that quickly. None of us had. So we decided to walk Clara to her ladies bible class and sit in on it with her.
The story of Joseph, a blind man from Baton Rouge
After the class we continued talking with Clara to make sure she really did “get it.” So Ananda told her the story about Joseph, the blind man from Baton Rouge. What shifted Joseph is when Ananda asked him what’s the difference between a person who is poor, seemingly has nothing, and yet is happy, and somebody who is rich and successful and yet is depressed.
Ananda built the story up to the point where he told Clara the answer Joseph gave in his moment of awareness that changed him forever.
Ananda told Clara that Joseph, after thinking it over for a few minutes, said, “I got it. It’s your thoughts.”
At first Clara didn’t understand what Ananda said. She thought he said, “It’s your TOTS”
She had no idea why your TOTS would make you happy or sad. Then I told her the word was THOUGHTS. And Clara got it right away.
For some reason she immediately, almost instinctively, started talking about how much she has to be grateful for in her life. Her friend beside her began to cry. We all began to cry. Clara had tears in her eyes, and Ananda asked to see her smile.
Clara beamed a huge smile for the first time and asked Ananda, “What did you say your name was?” Ananda told her, “Ananda” and Clara said, “I can’t even say that.”
So Ananda said, with his big grin, “It means joy. My name means joy.”
Clara said laughing, “Joy! Now that I can remember.”
So what did I learn from all this?
First, the whole experience in Alabama began with nothing more than a shared intent for us to go there and help people.
Then I remembered how guided all of this is … there are no coincidences.
Afterwards I asked Anandagiri about this. He said he believes when you have a positive intent to do good that it’s like the universe opens up and works with you, leading you to your intent. You can never connect the dots forward, but after something like our experience with Clara Hamilton was over, you can connect the dots backwards and see how guided everything was.