Wednesday, September 02, 2015

Pearlington

Wow.  What a trip!  It was everything I hoped it would be and more.  My hardest job right now is how to distill all the details and emotions into something that will make sense to you while doing the experience justice.  

Then I figured out my trip to honor the ten years since Hurricane Katrina is best told through the people I met there. The week was a parade of people.

And the trip starts where I started.  I went as a volunteer to Pearlington in the fall of 2006, a year after the storm.  There was still rubble everywhere.  Piles of twisted metal lined the roads, sometimes with a car balanced on top the pile like a cherry atop a sundae. The rebuilding had barely begun. We helped unload sheetrock at Shirley Thompson’s house.  She told us how the first time she returned to the empty lot that once held her home and looked around at the unrecognizable piles of debris, it was overwhelming.  Her prayer was, “God, you’ve got to send us some people to help us.  You know we can’t do this by ourselves.  You’ve got to send some people to help us.”

When I went home after that trip I couldn’t get the town out of my mind.  It wouldn’t let me go.  I called their Village Manager, Becca Weaver, and asked her if anyone ever came alone—one person, by themselves.  And that’s just what I did.  I packed for an undetermined visit, deciding I would stay as long as I felt I needed to.  I stayed two weeks. 

I went back again that spring for another two weeks.  Then they asked me if I was interested in serving as a village manager myself.  So I packed up again and lived in Pearlington from November of 2007 to April, 2008.  I rented a post office box and found someone to cut my hair. The people of Pearlington became family to me. I made the rounds and visited just about every church in town but my "home" church was always the one that served lunch to the volunteers every day. My pastor was Rev Rawls.


The people at Presbyterian Disaster Assistance became family, too.  We shared all the same miseries:  the heat, the bugs, the bureaucracy of a headquarters sitting in air-conditioned comfort three states away making decisions for us. The inability to get away from it all for even a minute. 

When the tenth anniversary of Katrina showed up on the calendar it was easy to set up a facebook page and contact old PDA volunteer village managers.  Originally there had been around seven villages where we housed people who came to help rebuild.  They stretched from the Alabama border to Louisiana/Texas border. The storm was that big.  

Everyone was pumped and wanted to see each other again.  But it didn't work out to have a huge group.  School got in the way.  Jobs got in the way.  Katrina had not scheduled herself for our convenience.  The more I thought of it, the whole idea of a big celebration was just kind of a crap shoot, anyway.  The City of New Orleans was about to invite the entire country to assemble on the very week of the anniversary of the biggest weather event in the history of the nation-- on the very calendar week of that event.  In the midst of hurricane season.  Was that a Gob-Smacking World-Class Gamble, or what?

We settled for a small contingent of friends who came and went, pretty much one at a time.  And that's probably best.  I might have had a stroke if I had been faced with trying to process so much happiness at once. The finest, most loving, Kingdom-mindest, people I've ever been privledged to rub elbows against in my life would soon be reunited.  A lot of them, at least.

As soon as I got into town, I stopped in at the gas station for a coke and found John Hill.  Then Becca Weaver Longino arrived with baby Abigail and the party started.  Neither of them had seen the finished sanctuary.



As the time for the evenings meeting arrived old friends dribbled in. The plan for the evening was to recreate "Neighbor Night", a potluck dinner the Pearlington camp had every Thursday when the homeowners whose houses we worked on would come to the camp to eat dinner with the volunteers.  The Village Managers got to know the homeowners really well since the same neighbors would come week after week.


John Hill, Jane, Becca Longino (and Abigail), Jan Rabe, and Dallas Trammell

Jan worked on the logistics team and I remembered all those cold nights she spent in the dark holding a flashlight while Mary Wityshyn riveted the tents together or vice-versa.  I called them the “pod Nazis” because they were so strict in their protection of the flimsy structures the volunteers slept in.  By the second year of taking care of the corrugated plastic tents Jan understood them.  She knew how to keep one water-proof, and warm, but it meant you had to play by her rules. And she didn't want volunteers hanging stuff up on the walls with coat hangers or duct tape.  

Dallas was the worksite manager and was famous for answering a question with her own, “Do you want the truth or do you want what I’m supposed to say?” And her truth was usually what I needed to hear.  These two were perfect examples of the people who live on the Gulf Coast who knew how to live in the path of a hurricane every summer.

John spends his retirement with mission work in Guatemala, among countless other projects.  Becca went to seminary after her work at PDA and now pastors a church near Austin, Texas while raising baby Abigail who is just about the most serene baby on earth.


The heroes of the whole thing have always been Rev and Mrs. Rawls.  Rev. Rawls says God told him that he had to feed the volunteers.  He reminded God that he had a small church with no money and God didn't care about that.  For three and a half years their church fed hundreds of volunteers a hot lunch every day.  It was the most phenomenal sight I have ever seen in my life.  

Mrs. Rawls spent so much energy getting ready for our arrival that she hurt her back and couldn’t make the evening.  And it just killed us all to miss her.  If God gave the idea of the lunches to the Rev, it was Mrs Rawls that made it happen.  The week before this Rev. Rawls celebrated 30 years as pastor of this church.

One special person I couldn't wait to see was Chloe.  We did a lot of head scratching to calculate how old Chloe was the last time I saw her.  I think she was seven and the most adorable little girl with two bushy pony tails sprouting from her head. When Chloe came for Neighbor Night every week she always had a dance for us.  It was usually a song from High School Musical.  I'm not sure who enjoyed it more, the volunteers or Chloe.  When this 17-year old appeared all I could do was stare and laugh in delight. It was like opening a marvelous time capsule filled with delicious treasure.



There were two other people I really wanted to see but I didn't get to.  I really expected to see Shirley Thompson but I guess she never got the word or maybe she had to work.  Shirley and I ended up in a partnership of sorts.  She would come by the office and tell me about someone who really needed a house.  And I would tell her I had lots of volunteers but no money.  So Shirley became a resource watchdog.  Then, a week or so later, she'd come back and tell me she had found the money for that person and we'd dance around the office to celebrate. If I can find my favorite picture of the two of us I think I'll post it.

The other person I didn't get to see was Miss Susie Burton.  She has passed on since I saw her last.  Miss Susie had a hard life and is at peace now.  She was just one of those strong Mississippi black women who made their way slowly but doggedly, against all the odds.  She drove a truck for a living at one point in her life, hauling pulp wood.  She bought the truck new in 1953 and it still sat in her yard after Katrina. I wished I had known Miss Susie before the storm.  I don't think she was the same afterwards.  During the spring break season I sent a series of college students to her house over three weeks' time to build a storage building, then paint it and clean up the Katrina debris from her yard.  She always kept a smoky fire going to drive off the gnats.  In the afternoons, she would throw her best wig on, sometimes a little akimbo, and come out to bring the kids a treat, sometimes a cake or ice cream, to love on them and talk to them.

Sometimes the rebuilding we did wasn't with wood or nails. Sometimes it was with hugs and laughter.

Tomorrow:  Day Two--A Party for 300 People



No comments: