This is the Season of Giving. Let me tell you something about Giving. I have seen Giving and I know what it looks like.
First, I’ll tell you what it’s not. Giving is not downloading a list on an excel spreadsheet your kids emailed that not only list every thing they want but includes the price and prioritizes the wish list in order of how much they want stuff. This isn’t giving; this is a business transaction. By the same token, it’s not the fruitcake you have mailed on your behalf every year to a relative who always sends you a fruit basket in return. This is more of a greeting than business transaction. But neither is really giving.
I’ve seen giving and I know what it looks like.
Giving is the people who saw Hurricane Katrina on TV and came to help. The first responders gave of themselves. They were people who knew to bring not just a chainsaw but a tent and a case of bleach. The Presbyterian Church has had volunteers in the Gulf Coast from almost the day after the storm. I met the guy who helped draw up the plans for our disaster response, John Robinson. He said he took a phone call from an early responder and told him he could send some guys with chainsaws. The guy on the Gulf said, “No, you don’t understand-- when they come they’re going to have to bring everything." They would have to bring their own tent, generator, food and water. Thus was born the concept of the volunteer villages that provided a complete city for volunteers.
Those early and brave ones slept in pup tents on the ground. They disinfected everything with bleach to combat mold and germs. They ran generators when they had gas for them. They fought mosquitoes, gnats, mold and bureaucracy. Later, they got trailers, pick-up trucks and cell phones. This meant that they were able to sleep inside on a mattress but by that time they spent so much time hauling plywood and drywall their muscles didn’t notice the small comforts.
Most of them couldn’t say why they came except that they felt a call. They cried with the people who had no homes, then, at night back in their trailers, they cried that they couldn’t do more. They called home to tell their churches to send help. They called home to explain to their families what it was like and why they were gone
What they were giving wasn’t something you could wrap in red paper and put under a tree. They gave themselves.
Rich Cozzone was one of the early ones. I met him on my first visit to Louisiana six months after the storm when they were still building volunteer villages. He served as a village manager then, and when I was in Mississippi in October this year I saw him again. By this time he was coordinator of all the PDA villages in the Gulf Coast. He was typical of many of the volunteers I’ve met who went home to his family periodically but kept getting the call and came back to give again.
All the village managers got an email Friday morning about 8am. The message said everyone needed to come to PDA headquarters in Gulfport to discuss something serious. We couldn’t figure what the meeting was about since we had all been together at a meeting only the day before. No one had ever gotten an email like that so we all dropped everything and piled in our trucks and drove from all along the coast to gather.
That’s when we got the news that Rich Cozzone had been killed in a car accident. He had given everything.
The details are sketchy. We know Rich left friends after dinner at 7:30. His car was discovered after midnight in the trees by the road. The only consolation we’ve had is that he died instantly and never felt a thing. As the PDA staff sifted through theories we remembered it was foggy that night. I think he just missed a curve and hit the trees at full speed. We are left with questions that have no answers in this lifetime.
The staff has gathered several times to grieve as a family. But as night falls and we need to return to our camps and volunteers, there is something new. People now ask each other to call when they get back to camp safely. I can tell you that I’m a lot more conscious of my driving now.
I’m also aware of just how much time I’ve been spending on the road. It’s not unusual for a camp manager to drive from one camp to the other in a day’s work. The six PDA camps are spread the width of the hurricane damage from Texas to Alabama—four states. The storm was that big. There are that many people who need help.
I never thought what I am doing here as being dangerous. And if I had, I would have pictured it in the form of falling off a ladder. I could have a wreck on a busy freeway in a big city as easily as a deserted highway in Mississippi. But even if the volunteers thought about this work as dangerous most of us still would have come. Most dangers we face can’t compare to what the survivors of this storm went through. I would be embarrassed to try to compare the two.
So this Christmas brings me a new understanding of what giving means. The day we met to hear of Rich’s death we had stopped in the middle of work to gather. Afterwards we went to the Sanctuary of the Lakeview Presbyterian Church in New Orleans. This church had taken about three feet of water from the storm and had been gutted and totally rebuilt. So we sat in a brand new Sanctuary with bright paint, new hymnals and bibles, new pews. Everything around us was pristine. We were a stark contrast: As we held hands in a circle all were wearing the standard PDA work clothes that we put on that morning thinking it would be a day like every other: blue t-shirts and jeans spattered with drops of paint and joint compound. The man next to me had a band-aid on one of his dirty and calloused hands. That’s what giving looks like: calloused hands and band-aids.
If we are to call this the Season of Giving we need to lay aside the Nativity story in Luke once in a while and remember John 3:16. God understands Giving. Rich Cozzone’s wife understands Giving.