Wednesday, March 8, 2006

March 5 -- Mississippi Recollections

Luke 14:25-35

Bay St. Louis was a weekend casino and golf escape for some, and a lifelong home for others. What was once a beautiful little town now looks like a war zone. Trees and debris are scattered aimlessly around, and several homes only have the concrete foundation remaining. Here’s where the truth begins to confront ignorance. We originally chose to bring a group of workers to MS thinking it wasn’t as badly hit as New Orleans – maybe it was still salvageable. The truth is that fastest winds of Katrina hovered over Bay St. Louis and Waveland, flooding the coast with immense storm surges. Until you’ve been there, it’s hard to grasp. What you see on TV is nothing compared to what it’s really like, Homes were flooded with 6-10 feet of water, which stood on the ground for 6-8 hours. By the time the water receded, nothing was left. Katrina was the costliest hurricane in American history and also claimed the largest amount of lives. More than 1,300 people were killed from Louisiana to Alabama. An early estimate of $100 Billion dollars in damage has been assessed. More than 33,000 families in MS alone are living in leaky FEMA trailers, with thousands more on waiting lists. That is surly a low figure and will likely rise in the coming months.

Hurricane Katrina displaced more than 3,000 of the residents of Bay Sat. Louis and damaged 95 percent of its homes. Katrina left the town with an uncertain future. On August 29, surge waters started quickly flooding homes at about 8 o’clock in the morning. Since MS is flat as a pancake, residents sought high ground on their roofs. Many had to claw through their ceilings with their hands just to get to safety. By the time people got up there, the roofs were blown away. They had to dive into the water, clinging to trees, or grabbing onto debris. We talked to a woman named Paula. When the waters came, her house lifted off its piers and floated away. She survived by getting into a small boat that floated by. Her and her extended family spent the next 8 hours in the boat, clinging to the sides while they lived off candy bars that floated by. Paula owned 15 horses. Before the storm, she led them to roam in a large pasture. After Katrina, 8 were dead, caught up in trees or tangled in barbed wire. Paula’s house cannot be rebuilt. She salvages her house, board by board, so that the wood can be reused at her sister’s house. She lives on a small road, named after her great-grandfather. The property has been in the family for 6 generations, so she doesn’t want to leave.

Recent media coverage has highlighted the ongoing devastation in the area. Up until now, we were under the impression that the area was on the road to recovery. It is not. Roads are cleared, power is back, and debris is being removed. However, now that some residents are returning, they face leveled homes and shattered lives. Emergency shelters still house residents and pass out relief supplies. The town’s mayor sleeps and eats at the fire hall. The school meets in trailers. CVS and the banks operate from trailers. WalMart runs from 1/3 of its store, selling merchandise and groceries from pallets stacked on the floor.

Katrina’s indiscriminate destruction was bad enough. The slowness of the recovery just irritates the wound. Replacing the infrastructure is more than any group of residents can do on their own, and the government has been notoriously slow in helping out. Residents cannot clear their property until insurance claims are settled. The insurance companies bicker with the government and residents over the percentages of wind damage verses flood damage. Some residents got settlements for wind damage only. Insurance companies reimburse them for the cost of their shingles – the only part of the house that didn’t sustain flood damage. A resident may receive 10-13K for shingles, but there is nothing to attach them to. Banks are beginning to foreclose on mortgaged properties. The fear is that developers will buy the foreclosed properties, and build casino resorts along the coast where people used to have their homes.

Many thanks to the TCC volunteers who gave their time and energy to work in MS: Pastor Matt,Tim Burke, Allan Buda, Kevin Callahan, Clark Gingras, Paul Nestro, Andrea Burke, Carolyn Kallahar, Amanda Paolian, Debbi Rosati and Andra Turner. We also thank our prayer partners, and all of the TCC members and friends who generously supported this trip. Make sure to ask them to share their stories and pictures with you! Joining with some friends from Bloomfield Presbyterian Church on the Green, NJ, we toured the massive destruction and ongoing relief efforts. We also worked hard -- painting, roofing, insulating, demolishing, and listening to the stories of those who survived the storm season.

We worked with an orgainzation called Foundation Hope from Bay St. Louis, MS. Foundation Hope is run by Tricia Myrick and Jessica Bean. In her former life, before Katrina, Tricia worked as an independent financial adviser in Hattiesburg. Beane, 26, was an accountant at the University of Southern Mississippi. After seeing the destruction in MS, they quit their jobs and opened up Foundation Hope. They began handing out relief supplies in the days afte Katrina hit. Now they are involved in rebuilding homes and lives. With less than three months before the next hurricane season hits, they work hard to shore up homes and conenct people to the services they need. Thanks to Tricia, Jessica, and Mark for their tireless work. They remain a voice of conscience in Bay St. Louis!

While in MS, we stayed with Pastor Rick from Daily Life Ministry. Our groups also worked with him on work orders that arrived at his house. A travelling evangelist from Iowa, Pastor Rick originally went to Bay St. Louis to pray with people. Six months later he is helping to rebuild homes and distribute supplies. We had a rocky start while staying at his home, mostly due to some theological language differences. However, as the week progressed, we managed to work it all out. I actually think he liked us by the time we left. Much thanks to Rick for his hospitality!

The needs are still great in the Gulf States. When asked what we can do to help, one person said, “We’re so deep in the trenches and the devastation is so great, it’s hard to think.” There are many good organizations working down there that still need financial support and our prayers. We are also considering adopting a family from that area. Organizations also need volunteers to go down and continue the work -- especially licensed builders, plumbers, and electricians.

In today’s reading from Luke, I hear a call to step outside of our comfort zones. Where are the men and women who understand that their purpose in life is to represent God's kingdom on earth? Where are the people who are willing to surrender their existence to the will of God, no matter what the price, because they understand that this is why they are here? A lot of them are in Bay St. Louis, MS, reconstructing lives and shining the light of Christ on those who feel forgotten and abandoned.

Thisis what the Gospel is about. Sure, we can attend church. Sure, we can put money in the offering plate. But if you are serious about your faith, there will come a time when you will be asked to step our of your comfort zone – to do something you would never have dreamed of. It’s a call to stop stumbling over ourselves and to live the life Christ calls us to.

People still look to the church to make a difference by living a different kind of life. And they don’t always see it. Some people come to the church, and they see fighting, gossiping, backbiting, quarreling, and every other kind of sin. Often, we serve Christ as long as serving Christ makes us comfortable. We're eager to serve God if it keeps money in our pockets and smiles on our faces. But we don't want it to inconvenience us. "Yes, I love the Lord, but I'm not really interested in teaching a Sunday school class, and meetings on Wednesday are out because my favorite TV show is on then. Yes, I want to serve God, but my job keeps me too busy to be on the Council or the church finance committee or to go out on visitation. But I'll give God two good hours every Sunday." You know what happens when this behavior continues. New-comers decide that how we behave in here is no different from any other place, and they don't want any part of it. Honestly, neither do I.

I don’t want my legacy to be that I was a church-goer. Iwant to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. I want you to be one, too. A disciple is a person decides that following Christ is a priority in life. Being a disciple means arranging our lives in ways that show Christ is of vital importance. Jesus didn't say being a disciple would be easy. He told his followers that they would have to deny themselves and take up their own crosses to follow him. He emphasized that following God would have to be first, even before one’s allegiance to family.

I have to be honest with you. I don’t like to hear that part of the Gospel. I was happier without knowing that part of Jesus’ scandalous expectations. Just like I was happier before I want to Bay St. Louis, MS. However, once you experience these things, you are changed. You can’t NOT want to do something. I feel the same about my faith. When I reflect on God’s faithfulness in my life, how can I allow myself to be lazy about my discipleship.

Lent is a time when we are invited to think about what it means to follow Christ. It might mean forbearance, or keeping our mouths shut when we are tempted to gossip or tear another down. It might mean really listening to another person’s point instead of trying to make your own. It might mean asking someone for forgiveness because you blew it and you were to proud to admit the fact that you might be wrong. It might mean making a choice to stand beside those who have been forgotten and using your resources to make his or her life better. It might mean taking stock of the blessings we have, remembering that there are people in our own country who are living in third world conditions.

As we come to the table today, we remember Christ, who identifies himself with those who suffer, and those who sacrifice. And we try to hear God’s call on our own lives to willing and dedicated discipleship.

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