When I went to Louisiana, now almost a month ago, I had no idea really what to expect when I got there. With all of the news footage over the months since Katrina and Rita hit, we all had horrible pictures in our heads, but I knew it had been several months and we weren't going to New Orleans. We actually went to a little town called New Iberia and worked out of the First United Methodist Church there. They had a building which they turned into dorm-style housing for VIM (Volunteers in Mission) work teams, which is how we ended up there. As you can tell from my previous post, there were a lot of issues that came up in our group over the 5 days we drove and worked together, but we never really got the chance to process them. I'm not going to take up more time on that at this point - I've verbally processed with several people, our group will never all be together again to hash it all out, and it's a moot point now anyway. What I haven't really processed is the people we helped and the damage we saw.
The trip was really only 3 days of work - Monday and Friday were nothing but driving, mostly through Arkansas. Tuesday and Wednesday we worked at Mt Zion United Methodist Church, a small country church in a low lying field. Different people will say it different ways, but essentially the storm damage to the church was very minimal. Most of the work we did had nothing to do with hurricanes and everything to do with just plain needing help. We did cleaning (pews, windows, floors, everything), some general maintenance (repairing a hole in the gutter, replacing lightbulbs, moving furniture, replacing damaged ceiling tiles, painting) and whatever else they needed. The three main projects we were told about before we got there were (1) a ramp for handicapped accessible entrance to the building (which was almost done when we got there - we just added a railing) (2) the ceiling and (3) the propane tank. It seems the field flooded with all the rain from the hurricane(s) and the water lifted the tank off the ground, shearing it off of it's connection to the line for the building. It ended up empty, upside down several yards away from the connection. We ended up just moving it back to where it belongs and recommending the gas company handle refilling it and repairing the broken connection. I don't know if the ceiling tiles were damaged from those rains too, or if they had just been there a long time and were situated in more vulnerable places of the roof. I don't think it matters.
At one point there was some dismay around the work we did and didn't do while we were there, and in reality, we didn't do the kind of work I expected we'd be doing, but it wasn't any less needed or appreciated. The lay leader from the church was there every day cooking food for us and thanking us any way she could. We gave that woman and a small church (one part of a 3 point charge) a sense of hope that they didn't have before. I heard some people in our group talk about what a shame it was that the congregation didn't take care of their own building, but I don't think that was fair. When you lose hope, why do you need pride? This church was in a SMALL town, very rural, and from the looks of the homes we passed, very poor. It was mostly made up of older African Americans (we were told the young people all moved away as soon as they could to find something more exciting). Again, I don't know if/how much race played into what we did down there, but I could feel the hopelessness in the air like a cold fog at 2 in the afternoon. I hope that a little more of the sunshine can now find its way in.
The third day of work we spent at an elderly gentleman's home. He's a member of the church we worked on and currently lives in a FEMA trailer parked in front of his house. On the outisde walls you can still see the flood line where water had been a couple of inches over the floor of the entire house. We ripped out moldy dry wall and insulation from three rooms in his house and started putting up new stuff before the day was done. Many of his salvageable belongings were stacked in his living room (which had been given new walls and subfloor by a previous work group) and his daughter drove in to take him to the hospital for a check up appointment while we were there. He was very sweet and surprised at how much we managed to get done in the one day we were there. I was sad we didn't get to finish a room at least, but I know more people will follow who will make his home livable again. This was much more the kind of project I had expected to be working on, and while it was very meaningful, it didn't touch me as much as the work we did at the church. Maybe that's because I saw the finished project and got that sense of accomplishment so many of us crave (got to tell that drum major of mine to cool it!) or maybe it's because we were there longer. I don't know. I have lots of pictures, but am not sure how I feel about putting them up on the blog. It seems a little too "hey look at me and tell me what a good thing I did" plus I don't have permission from the people in Louisiana for whom we did it all. If you're a Saint Paul student, you'll get to see plenty of them soon enough anyway. The seminary doesn't seem to have a problem letting everyone know what a great deed was done. Until the next rant....