Tuesday, December 01, 2009


A few years ago we changed our Christmas giving. Our kids had fallen into the routine of emailing us a list of what they wanted on a spreadsheet that listed the price of everything and prioritized it in order of how much they wanted it. Things were getting too ho-hum and materialistic.

That’s when I realized that we had sent them both to college and were finished paying for school. So we started sending a kid in Guatemala to school and that cost became our girls’ Christmas present. For the past five years they’ve gotten a picture of Jorge under the tree every year and have watched him grow. He’s finished the fifth grade now and by Guatemalan standards so has his education. Few children go beyond the fifth grade.

Opps, I was about to tell you what we plan to do this year and remembered that the girls read this blog and I would be spoiling their Christmas surprise. We still have surprises even though we’ve switched to charitable giving. The surprise comes in not knowing which charity and the intricate thought process that goes into the decision. One year Elizabeth gave Beaven a contribution to the Breast Cancer Foundation. Breast cancer…..for a man? She explained that he has five females he loves dearly. Ten breasts, five lives. It makes perfect sense.

I could go on for quite a while about Christmas buying but I know you’re busy…probably shopping on-line. Let me leave you with two thoughts: check out Mamie Broadhurst’s website http://calledtocolombia.org and what she has to say about giving.

And think about giving fair trade coffee. http://justcoffee.org ($10 a pound) is a cooperative I was introduced to this year by a Presbyterian minister. If you are someone who worries about illegal immigration, why not help give people a reason to stay home? One Mexican man told my friend Mark, “It is pain for us to leave our country.” Just coffee enables people to make a living wage so they don't have to leave their country.

Then, (opps, three not two things) here is a chapter from my book about 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 of 2007 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 coming back to give again.

Less than a week after Rich Cozzone sat in my trailer and drank coffee with me (early December of 2007 described in previous chapter) all the village managers got an email from Wilf around 8 in the morning on a Friday. 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 were sketchy. We know Rich left friends after dinner in New Orleans at 7:30. His car was discovered after midnight in the trees by the road near Pearlington. The only consolation we’ve had is that no one else was hurt, and he died instantly. He never felt a thing. As the PDA staff sifted through theories, we remembered it was foggy that night. Rich had commented at dinner that he was tired. My own theory, from driving through the fog on that stretch of highway myself, was that he just missed the curve at exit six and hit the trees at full speed. But no one really knew. We were left with more than a few questions that have no answers in this lifetime.

The staff gathered several times to grieve as a family. But as night fell and we needed to return to our camps and volunteers, there was something new. People started asking each other to call when they get back to camp safely. I became a lot more conscious of my driving.

I also became aware of just how much time I was been spending on the road. It wasn’t unusual for a camp manager to drive from one camp to the other in a day’s work. The six PDA camps were spread the width of the hurricane damage from Texas to Alabama—four states. The storm was that big. There were that many people who need help.

We all stayed pretty tired a lot of the time. This was a 24/7 job with not really enough time to catch up on the laundry. We were on the phone an awful lot. Having a BlackBerry hooked to my pocket made it so much easier to stay in touch with the volunteers around town and the other PDA staff, but I caught myself more than once trying to answer an email while I was driving. We had all fallen into bad habits without even thinking about it.

I never thought of what I was doing 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 on 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 faced couldn’t compare to what the survivors of Katrina went through. I would be embarrassed to even try to compare the two.

I gained a new understanding of what Giving meant. 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 been gutted and totally rebuilt. So we sat in a 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 to pray, all were wearing the standard PDA work cothes that we had put on that morning thinking it would be a day like every other. This meant blue PDA 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 celebrate the season of Giving in December every year 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.

1 comment:

mamie said...

Thanks for the shout-out Jane! If you get the chance, you might change the blog post to make sure the link goes to the right place. It is www.calledtocolombia.org (Colombia with two o's instead of a u like the one in South Carolina).

I'm thrilled for the book, and it's great to be back in touch after 10 years! Who'd a thunk it. Happy Advent.