Wednesday, June 14, 2006

At the Village in D'Iberville, Mississippi June 4-9

"God is loving and kind and caring and full of miracles," was the message I and about 75 volunteers heard from Dr. Irene McIntosh during our orientation at the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance Village in D'Iberville, Ms. last week. Irene is the President of D'Iberville Volunteer Center & Village near Biloxi, one of the hardest hit areas damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance helps operate this Village, which can house 100 volunteers at a time while they fan out across the community to rehab homes severely damaged by the storm surge of Katrina. The accomodations aren't fancy: large military style olive drab field tents that have received ply-wall interior walls and air-conditioners, an outdoor shower facility, group meals in the large meeting tent, and simple food prepared by volunteers. But the spirit of the Village is alive and bustling and filled with people on a mission to make a difference.

Irene was riveting in her stories of Hurricane Katrina's devastating force. She was an eye-witness and survivor herself. In her opening remarks she shared with the group of some 75 volunteers meeting with her under a large white tent: "In 12 hours, the people of D'Iberville went from middle class status to that of a 3rd world country. We had no jobs, no homes, no grocery stores, no electricity, no sewer and 65% of buildings were useless. No one was coming to help us. Not FEMA. Not the Red Cross."

But miracles did begin to happen, Irene told us. "The government of the people, by the people, and for the people" began to respond in the presence of church volunteers from all across the country.

Our charter bus from Omaha had driven through the night, leaving on Saturday afternoon at 4p.m., and arriving some 20 hours later with our group of 25 high school and college students and another 6 adults. We had come to live in the "Village at D'Iberville" and to contribute our volunteer efforts at helping local residents recover and rebuild.

My own team of 8 high school students and a young teacher in her early twenties was assigned to dry-wall the home of a man named Don, who is 75 years old. When Don saw our group of inexperienced youth,I think his hopes sank, not expecting that we would accomplish very much. His smile was still present on his face that first day, just not a real big one. Just watch, I told our youth, and see how that smile of Don's will grow.

I was standing in the hallway of Don's home that first day, removing a glass globe light fixture, so that fresh drywall could be hung, when I noticed something interesting. Come on over here, I asked the youth in my team. Watch this. I then shook that glass globe, which was full of water from the storm surge that engulfed the homes in the neighborhood. Don, the homeowner, told us the water was half way up in his attic. Everything in his home was destroyed. The tragedy was compounded when Don's wife died 12 days after the storm. For some 6 weeks, Don told us, he then lived in his car until a FEMA trailer was delivered.

Each night in the Village we gathered for a simple evening devotion and group sharing about the day's experience. On the second night, a teenage boy in our group got up to share and told us what he heard an older woman say to his group. "Maybe God is punishing us for our sins," she said. The boy in our group sat down, unsure of what to say next. Before I knew it, I popped up out of my seat, like something had grabbed hold of me, pushing me forward. I had heard comments like that before, from fundamentalist leaders.

That is not the God we worship and experience, I said. Ours is a loving and just God, who is revealed most fully in the life and ministry of Jesus. "Our presence here this week," I said, "shows that we believe God has sent us as the hands and feet of Christ in service to those in desperate need." "God so loved the world, that he gave his Son. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world," was the scripture passage I cited. And then I sat down.

Our homeowner, Don, whose home my team worked on offered witness to God's presence in many ways. Don was not a church goer, but each day he seemed to draw closer to our team. As we arrived about 8:30 a.m. each morning, he came out the door of his trailer to greet us. None of us had done much drywalling before. So the first day, we labored to get one room finished. The next day, we finished two rooms. And each day afterward we doubled or tripled our work production. Seeing this group of energetic high school students learn to do something they had never done before was a minor miracle of God's goodness. And Don's smile grew larger each day we were at his home.

On our last day, I invited Don to join our group in a circle to offer a blessing prayer for his home. I'd like that, Hart, he said. And I would like to pray for you too. So, I offered up a prayer and a blessing, and we experienced the miracle of God's presence in the life of a new friend.


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