There is one group of people who will give it a measure of respect and that’s the people who lived through Hurricane Katrina and those who helped with the reconstruction afterwards. Facebook has been peppered with comments from the folks I served with when I worked for the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance. It makes me homesick for my old friends. And it has redefined my definition of the word "friend."
Sherman from San Francisco posted to Dallas Trammel's page that he hoped the storm would fade out but if it didn’t he would be there to help her. I had to jump on the bandwagon and declared I would come, too, if for no other reason than to spend another week working with Sherman. And I know Jason would come from South Carolina, too. And Lee and Judy Thomas. And the Maryland group. And Pennsylvania and New York and Iowa. And, for sure, all the Canadians. The people I worked with at PDA are some of the finest people I’ve ever met in my life. It was an honor to just hang around them. And they were just a hell of a lot of fun, too.
Some of them flew into New Orleans with suitcases of tools. Some came with only clothes and a bedroll. Some came in their church vans driving for two days straight. Some took vacation without pay and a few even quit their jobs to live on the Gulf until the job was done.
They were a no-nonsense bunch of unusually competent fixer-uppers, people who didn’t ask a lot of questions or complain much. Just show them the house that needed their help and show them the PDA tool trailer. They didn’t need much more guidance than that. Which was handy because if anyone thought my title, Worksite Manager, meant I knew what I was doing they were in for a big surprise. I’m still not sure how I ended up with that job but for four months I managed the worksites in Pearlington, Mississippi. The only talent I claim to possess in the job was that I am brilliant with spreadsheets.
I arranged the 15 or so houses under construction at any given time on a spreadsheet with the job requirements. I plugged in the four or five groups of volunteers in the volunteer village according to the skills they claimed to possess. It was all color-coordinated and I could sort it in a whiff by any given criteria. Then I prayed like mad that they knew what they were doing because I certainly didn’t.
The group from Dorchester Presbyterian Church in Charleston, South Carolina had remodeled their own sanctuary themselves instead of hiring a contractor. They knew how to do it because they had rebuilt their own homes after hurricanes. A couple of groups sent professional contractors to help guide them. As the worksite manager I never knew who I was getting. Yes, they had filled in a form declaring their talents but I found those forms not always accurate. Sometimes people had overestimated their talents and sometimes I was surprised by how good they were. The good surprises outnumber the bad one by far.
And when they were not as competent as the pros then at least they were so well-intentioned that it made up for the difference. If they weren’t experienced enough to get the job done fast, they slowed down and put a lot of thought into their work. They got the job done one way or another.
They brought compassion and friendship with them. Sometimes they even brought How To books. We put them on the shelf right next to the hymnals and bibles. I’ve heard it said a preacher should preach with the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other. You might say this was a variation of how life should be lived—with books on how to drywall next to bibles on the shelf.
One church came from Northern California the same week as another group from Southern California. They developed a friendly rivalry between No Cal and So Cal and I had to admit I had never even thought of the difference. My own group of volunteers from Texas was challenged to a BBQ cook-off by a group from South Carolina. That had to have been one of the finest moments in PDA history if only for the food. (We whipped their butts, too.)
At the end of the day, back at the camp dining tent people had a chance to compare ecclesiastical notes. Pastors could trade ideas with pastors from other presbyteries or complain about their session. Elders could complain about their pastors. There was an air of honesty and safety between churches. What was said in New Orleans stayed in New Orleans.
We talked about the weather and the mosquitoes. We compared brands of mosquito repellant. We swapped our best ideas for everything from bible study resources to fund raisers. I brought home an idea for a fundraiser that proved very popular. Chocolate for Children during Valentine’s Day has helped fund the Children’s Nutrition Project in Guatemala for about three years now and the idea came from a church in New York.
We traded names and email addresses which have now blossomed into facebook friendships. I’ve been in touch with Amy Mears on a regular basis ever since. Colleen O’Toole keeps me posted on what she’s up to in Portland with the Habitat for Humanity ReStore. If I have a tricky pastor- type question I have three or four folks from Virginia or Pennsylvania to add to pastors I know locally.
Beaven and I had the supreme compliment of being invited to Rev and Mrs. Rawls’ 50th wedding anniversary in Mississippi. And we would have gone, too, if we didn’t already have concrete plans that could not be broken.
What made all these people so special? How do you come up with relationships like that in such a short period of time? Like having a bad substitute organist in worship, we faced a common adversary. The destruction from Katrina was enormous. Even those who came two years after the storm understood its enormity. You had to see it in person to fully understand it. But rather than standing around wringing their hands at home, these people came.
They spent the night on a narrow cot inside a corrugated plastic tent. They slept in the cold and in the heat. They walked across the camp to shower in a trailer and used portapotties for a week. They cooked for each other and ate uncomplaining. They had a common enemy.
Sometimes the enemy was a complicated drywall angle or a copper pipe cut too close to the concrete because someone had come in and stolen all the copper out of the house. Sometimes the enemy was prejudice or poverty or ignorance or politics. Sometimes the enemy was mental or physical illnesses or drugs.
They confronted it all in one way or another. They stared it in the eye and didn’t blink. Then they picked up a hammer and kept going.
If they left a house unfinished, they said they would be back to finish it. And they did come back. Most groups made three or four or more trips. Some have been 15 times and are still making regular trips to New Orleans. If they were able to declare the house ready for occupancy they had parties and blessed the house into it’s very bones. One by one, they put whole towns back together again using nothing more than limited skills and unlimited love.
They just came. The volunteers who worked on the Gulf Coast have a bond with the residents that goes as deep as the mud that came ashore August 29, 2005. We have an unwritten language that doesn’t need translation because we both speak the language of Jesus Christ. We are Maundy Thursday Friends. We have washed each others’ feet.