U-C: What I See

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Glimpses from the Gulf Coast of Mississippi

8:00 a.m. Tuesday, September 13

Interim General Presbyter Mike Mann graciously agreed to get up at 5 a.m. to drive me over to Mississippi. He exits highway 10 at the Diamondhead exit, just across the border from Louisiana. As we exit, I look to the right and there is a gas station and convenience store that has been completely destroyed. We’re just a few miles north of the gulf, and there are acres of forest of pine trees that have been snapped in half that make a tangled mess everywhere I look. A few hundred yards from the exit, we enter into a golf community with houses that range from modest middle class to upscale. Since we’re early for our first meeting at the Diamondhead Community Presbyterian Church, Mike drives us slowly through the community. At first, it looks like the houses are relatively unscathed. Most trees are down, and there are power lines on the ground everywhere I look, but the houses themselves appear to be mostly o.k.

Then, from one house to the next, everything changes. All of a sudden the streets are lined with piles and piles of carpet, mattresses, toys, sofas, all of the belongings that didn’t survive Katrina. Half or two-thirds of the roofs are missing on many of the houses. Garage doors have been twisted into garbage. Inside the garages, cars have been shoved into one another and up against the walls by the force of the winds. One house is missing all of the walls on one side.

Back at the church, many of the trees in the heavily wooded area around the building are down, though the building itself escaped with little damage. The parking lot is buzzing with activity. A work group from Second Presbyterian Church arrived in the middle of the night with two travel trailers, one of which will be donated to help the church host future work groups. Another Presbyterian arrived with a small bobcat, and he is busily pushing debris around in the yard. There are several small groups of people getting organized for the day.

Inside, I find a “seat-of-your-pants” disaster recovery center that Pastor Chas Jones and members of the church have put together. There is a five-foot long poster board showing the organizational diagram that they have come up with. The Chas’s name is at the top (for a long time, his was the only cell phone that worked, and he was the entire organizational chart), and then there are about ten different task forces with the names of responsible folks under each one: communications, pastoral care, material aid, clean-up, etc. After two weeks of learning as they go, these folks look like pros. Chas is fielding questions and deploying groups to different areas of need: another material aid project run by a young businesswoman down closer to the coast, the huge Walmart parking lot where volunteers are trying to help organize tons and tons of material aid, a couple of folks who want four chain saws to head off to an area that needs trees removed.

As Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team (PDAT) member Al Thompson arrives to take me on to the next stop, another work group is just arriving. The words “controlled chaos” come to mind.

11:00 a.m. Tuesday, September 13

Eighty miles up the road, Al pulls into the parking lot of Gautier Presbyterian Church (pronounced Go-Shay). There is a beautiful, small sanctuary that pastor Chris Bullock tells me was renovated a week before the storm. All the pews have been taken out, the carpet and stage ripped up, and the piano and small organ are likely to be a total loss. Chris explains that they didn’t miss a Sunday. On the first week after the storm, eight or nine people pulled some folding chairs into a corner and had a service that focused on hope.

This is the church where I meet the women of the prayer shawls. They are sitting in folding chairs in the hot sun out beside the tent city that is being called a “staging area” for work camps, or a “village for volunteers.” This is the site that PDAT team members and the Presbytery have identified for the first tent village. (check out the Presbyterian News Service story at www.pcusa.org/pcnews/2005/05488.htm ) It consists of about thirty, small, five person, backpack style tents laid out in neat rows. Each tent has three or four cots inside. On the back side of the property, there are wooden posts with party lights strung between them to provide light for volunteers who when they’re headed for the porta-potties in the middle of the night. A few dozen yards from the porta-potties, volunteers have built simple shower stalls out of a wood pallet (to stand on), and a PVC framework that holds black plastic in place to create privacy screens. Each shower has a hook from which to hang a water bottle that the volunteers will fill from hoses near the church building. Volunteers will bring their own campstoves or a motorhome or trailer to provide needed meals for the groups.

Having seen the destruction that has overtaken the entire coastal region, I have a new level of appreciation for the need for the camps. Folks here are anxious to get groups in to go to work. The order is proscribed: debris clean up, muck out the houses, provide home repair for the houses where its worth it, offer pastoral care and a lot of hugs throughout.

Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador during the worst of the violence against civilians that took place there in the seventies, once preached a sermon on the difference between hope and faith. “Try not to depend on hope,” he said, “because unfulfilled hope leads to despair, and we have no need for a despairing people. Try instead to have faith.” Faith means insisting that God will work a new thing no matter how overwhelming the odds. Faith means we know what we are required to do as followers of Jesus, and we do it in spite of all the evidence that suggests our efforts might be in vain.

I don’t believe that Romero was suggesting we shouldn’t be hopeful people – just that we shouldn’t depend on hope to keep us going when times get truly tough. As we dedicate the village this morning, and I hand the prayer shawl to Pam with the commitment that the rest of the church will not forget our brothers and sisters in Mississippi, I give thanks for the faithfulness of God’s people in this place, and for the glimmers of hope that God allows us.

3:00 p.m. Tuesday, September 13

Having visited another church en-route, Al drives me to First Presbyterian Church in Ocean Shores. This church is about a city block from the beach, and everything around it seems to be destroyed. The stately sanctuary that they built in 1995 appears to be fine, though the manse may be a total loss, and the one hundred and ten year-old, historic chapel sustained potentially serious damage as well. Though we have stopped by unannounced, Pastor Tim Brown greets us warmly and invites us to his office.

I like him immediately; he has a kind face with a broad smile, and he shares easily about the challenges for his family as well as for his congregants. Eight out of twelve elders on his session have lost everything – there is nothing left of their homes. The same is true for at least thirty-five percent of the congregation. Eighty percent of Tim’s members have sustained some serious loss in Katrina’s wake. Though this is a church that has been thriving and growing, it’s clear that not everyone will return.

Still, the rebuilding work has begun already. They have hosted several work groups, and they are gearing up for a group of seventy-five who are coming this weekend, most of them from Montreat College in North Carolina. Tim says that people came at first with the idea that they could help rebuild something, but quickly realized that most folks are months away from the possibility of rebuilding.

“We just put them to work on whatever seems important each day,” says Tim. “First it was debris clean-up. Then we realized that we couldn’t function out of the fellowship hall if we didn’t try to clean it up and clear the mess. Every day we look around and try to figure out what to do next.”

Tim and I finish our time together in prayer, and I realize that he has been a pastor to me. Whatever I may believe about the importance of faith in moments of crisis, Tim’s hope in the midst of destruction is infectious, and I’m grateful for it.

9:00 p.m. Tuesday, September 13

Al and I have driven on up the coast to Mobile, Alabama, where a wonderful Presbyterian has loaned a home to the PDATers. It is located on a high bluff in Daphne, looking our over the river toward the city of Mobile. Al has gone off to the Presbytery office to catch up on email. As usual, though his day started at five a.m., he won’t finish till 11:00 or so.

I sit alone on the back porch and look at the lights of the Mobile across the river. There is much to be thankful for. I’m thankful for Volunteers who offer their time and expertise as members of Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Teams. I’m grateful for pastors and elders who know that although the nature of their ministry has changed, their call to that ministry has simply gotten stronger. I’m grateful to Presbyterians across the country who are hungry for more information and for opportunities to help. I give thanks for all the people I’ve seen in the past two days for whom reaching out to help is the deepest and most immediate of gut reactions. I’m grateful for prayer shawls, and the women (and men too) who make them. I’m grateful for the Norwegian church and the donation of 1000 tents. I’m thankful for those for whom their faith is rock solid, not something to be doubted or questioned in moments of crisis, but something to be depended upon – the inner reserve God offers us to help us get through the most difficult of tragedies in our lives.

God is good – all the time.


Thursday, September 15, 2005

Glimpses from S. Louisiana

5:00 p.m. Sunday, September 11

We’re gathered for a special meeting of the Presbytery in the beautiful sanctuary at First Presbyterian Church Baton Rouge. The pews are comfortably filled, with well over one hundred people who are talking quietly before the meeting begins. For most, this is the first time they’ve seen one another since Katrina’s one hundred and forty mile an hour winds ripped through they’re communities. It’s the first time they’ve seen one another since the levees of New Orleans broke and the city filled like a bathtub. It’s the first time they’ve been together since they witnessed the emotional and spiritual devastation of tens of thousands of scared, hungry, angry people who sought refuge in the superdome and the convention center of New Orleans. It’s the first time they’ve been together since many of their churches became temporary shelters themselves, and the first time since all of their lives as pastors have been turned upside down.

I’m sitting in the middle of the sanctuary with Neale Miller and a group of about a dozen parishioners from Lakeview Presbyterian Church, one of the churches that took the greatest beating as the city flooded. Around the room, the embraces last a long-time, and I see more than one person’s eyes fill with tears as stories are shared. I also see laughter, and feel a genuine sense of family.

The work of the Presbytery today is to establish an administrative commission to help re-establish and strengthen the work of the churches that have been decimated by the storm. Their task is overwhelming: receive and administer funds for relief, assess the physical damage, work with churches to develop a plan to assure the meaningful employment and payment of the salaries of all pastors and staff members of every church (there is a special account established through the General Assembly if you would like to help), work with the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Team (PDAT) members to register with FEMA all those who were flood victims, plan for work campers and professionals to clean up debris and put churches and homes back together again, and support the families of our churches who have lost most or all of their possessions in this flood.

We finish the meeting with worship, and with the words of Pastor Gerrit Dawson from First Pres. as he reflected on the passage on the Old Testament passage in which all brought their treasures to lay before God. Strong words for a people and a church who must do exactly that if our brothers and sisters are to recover.

8:30 a.m. Monday, September 12

We’re gathered at the Presbytery office for devotions. Every morning the staff of the Presbytery gathers with the PDAT to begin the day with prayer and reflection. This morning, though folks are clearly tired out, there is a good spirit in the room and everyone agrees that the Presbytery meeting was a needed community moment.

An hour later, the PDAT folks gather for a conference call with John Robinson, who is coordinating PDA’s response to Katrina. The conversation is freewheeling and wide-ranging. Each person has things on his or her mind. How will the local team coordinate with PDAT volunteers staffing the phones at Ferncliff camp in Little Rock to handle all the churches that would like to send work groups to help? How do we encourage long-term “twinning” or partnerships that will sustain the affected churches over the long-haul, without overwhelming the churches themselves with all those who would like to help? Can we put some staff members, who can’t re-occupy their churches for the next few months, to work for disaster relief? Will FEMA or others help to pay them if we do? How can we help the pastors begin to recreate a sense of community with churches that are so dispersed? How many of our members will choose not to come back? Who are the volunteers who will arrive next to carry on PDAT’s work? Where can PDAT set up a long-term office? How can PDA encourage research on the response to Katrina that will help us for the next disaster? The questions are endless, but the meeting is efficient and finishes up within the hour. Everyone knows there is a great deal to do today.

4:00 p.m. Monday, September 12

Six of us are touring the parts of New Orleans that are now drivable, and trying to get to as many of the churches as possible to get a sense of what condition they are in. Interim Executive Presbyter Mike Mann drives us down to 17th street, where the first levee broke. I climb up onto a wood pallet that is leaning against the concrete barrier on top of the earthen levee. I can just get high enough to look across the levee at the workers who are continuing to reconstruct it. Huge pumps with what look like monstrous vacuum hoses draped over the top of the levee are pumping water out of the city and back into the canal.

John, a tentmaker pastor who has been evaluating the condition of the churches, tells me that if there had been a floodgate a few blocks away where the canal meets the lake, most of the flooding of downtown New Orleans could have been avoided.

As we drive out of town, we pause on an overpass and look down on the highway that leads into town. It is deserted, and where it dips under the overpass there is still four feet of water showing on the gauge mounted on the bridge abutment. A highrise building in the distance is missing most of its window. Several buildings immediately around us have lost their roofs. Even though the road is empty of traffic, there are dozens of school buses inexplicably abandoned along the road. Later, as we drive through the areas of Jefferson Township, there are boats abandoned in the medians of the highways and in people’s front yards. Most houses have been damaged. Some of them have been utterly destroyed.

We visit two churches, Parkway and John Calvin, that I spent time in when I traveled in the Presbytery back in November. Both will be active again within weeks, but it is an eerie feeling to see the churches closed up tight with no one around. At First Presbyterian Church in downtown New Orleans, the watermark on the sign out front is over five feet high. Trees look like broken matchsticks everywhere we turn. In many intersections, we drive around fallen power lines.

7:30 p.m. Monday, September 12

We’re back in Baton Rouge, sixty miles or so from New Orleans where hundreds of thousands fled to escape the storm. Our last stop of the day is Broadmoor Presbyterian, another church I visited back in November. Pastor Hawley Wolfe and members of his congregation, together with the Red Cross, have turned their large gymnasium into a shelter.

The parking lot is full of cars, many of them loaded full of people’s belongings. There are three or four people sitting outside smoking in the evening dusk. Just inside the door is a table where Red Cross volunteers are helping residents to fill out the myriad forms that are part and parcel of experiencing a disaster. In the back corner of the gymnasium, several teenagers are hunting through piles of donated clothing. On the far end of the gym, there are dozens of folding cots lined up in neat rows, and folks are sitting or reclining on the cots. The other half of the room is filled with several dozen round tables, and more people are sitting at the tables. As I search their faces, I see folks who looked tired. Some look bored. Some look genuinely bewildered. Kids are playing tag with pent up energy that has nowhere else to go.

Miss Emily, who cooks for the church’s preschool and for the Wednesday night program, is just finishing up the clean-up from the evening meal, and she greets us with a warm smile and outstretched arms. She explains that there are anywhere from fifty to one hundred people with them each night. Her good spirit is infectious; some people, I’ve learned, are prepared for the moments of test that come with overwhelming need. Miss Emily is clearly one of them.

One young boy, named Glenn, tells me that he is ten years old – just like my own son, Teo. I ask if he’s been going to school, and he says no. I ask him if he’s bored, and like my own son would respond, he says no to that too. “What do you do all day?” “I play with the other kids,” he answers. I don’t probe any further, not wanting to push him to talk about a future he certainly can’t fathom.

One of the parishioners asks if I’ll pray with the residents. In a booming voice, he asks for everyone’s attention, introduces me, and suggests that I would like to pray for them. Words come, but they clearly aren’t my own words. Only God can offer words to folks who are on the edge.

This is church. As I walk across the parking lot to leave, I think to myself that being with folks who have no security and no clear plan for the future is where Jesus placed himself time after time. The members of Broadmoor are a steady stream in and out of the building, bringing supplies, spending time with the residents, helping folks fill out forms, and cleaning tables. I’m told that some have been working the internet as they work to reunite families. Wish I could be fly on the wall for one of those moments.

As always, the compelling moments come in the midst of acts of selflessness. It’s a two-sided coin, isn’t it? I wonder again if we have it in us to involve ourselves in this kind of Christian commitment when the cause is less immediate and compelling.

Normal, everyday Presbyterians, doing their best to witness to Christ’s love in the world. Regular folks, sharing their own faith as they live it. It does indeed make me proud to Presbyterian.

11:00 p.m. Monday, September 12

One day, and I’ve seen only the tip of the iceberg. There is far more hurt and pain than I can soak up in one day. However, there is also far more hope and witness from our churches of S. Louisiana and across the country than can be experienced in such a brief visit. Presbyterians at other churches are leading material aid efforts, providing care for infants, and offering pastoral care.

As I go to sleep, I close my eyes and offer prayers for the folks I’ve met today.


Wednesday, September 14, 2005

In which my eyes are slowly opened - Katrina

Sisters and Brothers,

I don’t know about you, but it took several days for Katrina’s significance to sink in for me. I had a series of “aha” moments that unfolded through my conversations with Jean Marie Peacock, the vice-moderator of the General Assembly and associate pastor at Lakeview Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. Early on, I was horrified, like all of us, by the horrific violence of the storm. I, along with Jean Marie and many others, breathed a huge sigh of relief when New Orleans appeared to come through the storm battered but not destroyed. Then the levies broke, and I felt my anxiety begin to rise like the rising of the water in the city of New Orleans.

Later that day, I spoke again with Jean Marie as she and her husband Peter headed for her parent’s home in Urbana, IL (where they still are two weeks later). She told me that Lakeview Presbyterian Church was the closest Presbyterian Church to the break in the 17th Street levy, and that it was quite likely under at least twelve or fifteen feet of water (a guess that turned out to be accurate). Her own home was also in one of the flooded areas, and she and Peter were just beginning to come to grips with the fact that they probably have lost everything they own. Even now, more than two weeks later, they have no news of the condition of their home.

Two days later, Jean Marie and I spoke again. This time, she told me that she couldn’t watch the news footage from the city any longer because it was just too much to take in. At that point, she and Lakeview’s Senior Pastor, Neil, still hadn’t managed to track one another down, and she had only spoken with two or three of the several hundred members of Lakeview. How does one do the work of pastoring, I wondered, when you don’t know where your congregants are, how to contact them, or whether they are o.k.?

Jean Marie opened my eyes to still more that I was too ignorant to have thought of. How do churches that can’t collect offerings on Sunday mornings, many of whose members have been personally devastated and who don’t know whether they still have jobs, continue to pay the salaries of their staffs? In Lakeview’s case, that includes musicians, administrative and program staff, the sexton, and the teachers for an independent but church-related childcare program. Many of those folks have families, and they depend on each week’s paycheck to survive, just as you and I would.

On Wednesday morning the thirty-first of August, I was invited to sit in on a conference call of the leadership for Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. (Please link to PDA at http://www.pcusa.org/katrina/ to find out how you can get involved.) PDA’s trained teams were already en-route to the Gulf Coast, call-centers were being established for Presbyterians who wanted to help, Medical Benevolence Foundation (http://www.mbfoundation.org/) offered its warehouse in Houston, and international partners were calling to offer help as well. But I confess that I had yet another “aha” moment during the phone call, as it dawned on me that this wasn’t just disaster assistance. PDA was also talking about the long-term housing and possible resettlement of many of the victims. Katrina will impact the lives of many Presbyterians outside the affected region as they open their homes and work to help families resettle, either for the short-term or for the long-term.

Yet another of my new realizations came as I watched the news from a hotel in Chicago over the following weekend and saw the complete chaos and desperation of folks who ended up in the superdome and the convention center. I know that hard questions about political responsibilities will be asked by and of our politicians, but the church has some tough questions in front of us as well. This is (another) clarion wake-up call to all of our churches that we are a long-way from overcoming racism and class division in this country. Our churches should be leading the way in lifting up the biblical call to become a beloved community – a community that overcomes the obvious class and racial barriers that made it possible for tens of thousands of our (mostly) African American brothers and sisters to be left behind because they simply didn’t have the resources most of us would count on to get out when the storm warnings came.

“Aha” moments are a gift to me from God. As children of God, we are called to create the kind of community where all people feel God’s love. We are called to witness to God’s compassion, to rebuild lives with the kind of attention God offers even to the “least of these.” We are called to work for God’s justice whenever clear inequities exist in our communities. I give thanks for my own, gradual awakening to the magnitude of the challenge as we respond to the destruction of Katrina.



On Prayer Shawls in the wake of Katrina


A friend recently wrote to point out that more than forty days have passed since I last posted to my blog. A combination of an extremely busy travel schedule, a commitment to protect what little family time I have, and my laptop being out of commission for more than four weeks, have all led to this long, quiet, interlude. There is much to catch up on, and I want to begin with several posts to offer impressions of three days that I’ve just spent in South Louisiana and Mississippi Presbyteries. (By the way, if you’ve been waiting for email from me, please hang in there. I’m trying to dig out from under a pile of several hundred emails that have built up during this crazy time.)

I was supposed to spend the last eight days traveling in the Synod of the Lakes and Prairies. However, on Labor Day, a week after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, Interim General Presbyter Mike Mann from S. Louisiana Presbytery called me to ask if I could be with them on Sunday the 11th for a special meeting of the Presbytery. Folks in Lakes and Prairies were extremely gracious and encouraged me to go, and everywhere I went in their Synod the first question I was asked was how Presbyterians can respond to the victims of Katrina. So, after five and a half days of visits to Duluth, Minneapolis, northeast Nebraska, Storm Lake Iowa, and Rapids City S. Dakota, I spent my last morning at Crossroads Presbyterian Church, a growing, vibrant, exciting church just north of Milwaukee.

As I rushed toward the car after the first service in order to make my flight, one of the women in the congregation stopped me to offer me a “prayer shawl.” I didn’t know anything about prayer shawls, but there is a movement of folks who pray for whoever will eventually receive the shawl they are making, and then who pray each stitch as something of a spiritual discipline as they work. (check out their website at www.shawlministry.com.) Mine was a large, soft, bluish-green shawl, and it was given to me with prayers for my time as moderator.

As I flew to Baton Rouge, I was having a hard time organizing my thoughts. What could one say to be helpful to pastors and elders, when many of them have lost everything themselves, many of their churches will not be habitable for weeks or even months to come, and many of their parishioners have been scattered. I spent the flight thumbing through my Bible and meditating, praying that God might help me to find the right words and that my presence might be helpful to our colleagues there.

As I prayed, I held the prayer shawl on my lap, and it occurred to me that it was a wonderful sign of all of the prayer and concern I have heard from Presbyterians as I’ve traveled during the last two weeks. There was a card pinned to the shawl with a short prayer of support for those who receive it, and I read the prayer over and over as we flew. Here are the words to the prayer:

May God's grace be upon this shawl...warming, comforting, enfolding and embracing. May this mantle be a safe haven... a sacred place of security and well-being... sustaining and embracing in good times as well as difficult ones. May the one who receives this shawl be cradled in hope, kept in joy, graced with peace, and wrapped in love. Blessed Be!

Late on the afternoon of the 11th, I was offered the chance to share a few words with more than one hundred Presbyterian pastors and elders at the meeting, and as I concluded my remarks, I offered the shawl to Hawley Wolfe - the Moderator of the Presbytery - with the request that he pray on it himself for awhile, and then pass it on to someone else in the Presbytery to help sustain them. He draped it over the pulpit where we were gathered at First Presbyterian Church, and it remained there throughout the rest of the meeting and our worship.

Two days later, I was headed for Mississippi and regretting the fact that I didn’t have another shawl to offer. One of my stops there was to help dedicate a “Tent Village for volunteers” at Gautier Presbyterian Church on the coast (more about that later). As we sat on folding chairs in the hot sun and waited for the dedication to begin, one of the women from the church said something to the other women sitting with us about their prayer shawls. I couldn’t believe it. It turns out that their small church, like the large congregation in Mequon, WI, has a ministry of making prayer shawls, and Pat, Sue, Dottie and Aubin all participated in the ministry. Aubin, who proudly announced to me that she was the oldest member of the congregation, said that she had her shawl with her in the car.

We agreed that I would use Aubin’s prayer shawl to begin a similar chain of encouragement and support in their Presbytery, and the shawl that she handed me was almost exactly like the one I had left behind in S. Louisiana, right down to the color of the yarn. As I “presented” the shawl to Pat, she agreed that she would return it to Aubin, and bring the latest one she had finished to the church to be blessed in prayer before being handed on to the next of the ten churches on the Gulf Coast whose families have had their lives turned upside down.

I love it when God works on me that way, opening my eyes, all at once in a rush, to something that I know nothing about. As I offered both of the shawls, I assured our sisters and brothers of South Louisiana that these shawls come with a commitment to prayer from the rest of us across the country. I hope that all folks, Presbyterians and others, will find a way to pause each day and hold the victims of Katrina in prayer. Further, I hope that this will be the kind of prayer that I heard Brian Blount, a professor at Princeton Seminary, talk about last summer. He said that his mother taught him not to get down on his knees in prayer to God unless he is willing to get up and go to work for what he’s just prayed for.

Theologically, I believe that in moments of tragedy we are not to ask “Why did this happen?” but instead, “What would God have us do?” This is a time for the church, in all places, to BE church.