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.