Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Last week in Ocean Springs, Mississippi

There's plenty of work to do on the Mississippi Gulf Coast today. The pictures are from my own camera and were taken between February 5 and 9, 2007 in Moss Point and Biloxi, MS.

Lots sit empty, concrete slabs or single stair cases are the only remnant of destroyed homes. Tarp covered roofs remind those who see them of the damage caused by Katrina. But most Americans don't see them everyday. Those who live far away we can easily forget about disasters and the people living in devastated homes or trailers after the storm. But not everyone chooses to forget those with the greatest of needs. The church I serve in Minnesota knows the unfinished work first hand. 19 people from our Christian Action Team headed down in February 2007 to Mississippi to work rebuilding homes and lives.

Preparation started long before February. Vacation time was planned, money set aside, and reservations made at Camp Victor in Ocean Springs, MS for February 4-10, 2007. Camp Victor is a cooperative effort of Lutheran Disaster Response, Lutheran Social Service, and Christus Victor Lutheran Church. The facility houses over 200 volunteers who come to rebuild, distribute resources, or support other volunteers who go out making houses livable for the elderly, disabled, and poor of the Gulf Coast. Camp Victor' case workers have waded through over 1000 help requests. 700 families still await assistance. Up to 70 homes are in reconstruction by Camp Victor volunteers at any one time.

Ocean Springs is 1100 miles from Minnesota. Damage could be seen 70 miles from the coast. Pulling into Ocean Springs is deceiving. Business on the main highway have reopened and many damaged beyond repair were leveled. A few blocks from the highway and high ground the total damage is clear. The storm surge knocked out the first floor of many homes near the shore and inundated many homes on the bayous and back-channels of the Gulf. In low-lying towns like Moss Point and Pascagoulah, Mississippi almost every home was flooded and every home needed cleaning out and sanitizing. Those without resources, because of poverty or because their insurance company refused settle, face the greatest challenges. That's exactly where Lutheran Disaster Response gets to work serving the poor and the old who have no other resources. One church can't undo the racial and class inequalities that underlay Mississippi's culture; but we can do our best to help our neighbors, regardless of age or race, to rebuild.

Crews from Camp Victor spread out working on various jobs as close as a block away and as far as 40 minutes drive. Our 3 crews worked on 6 different house installing everything from drywall, to new flours and ceilings. 4 professional builders came forward to lead the effort. Camp Victor requests one well trained person come with every 5 volunteers. Bathrooms needed plumbing and lights needed hanging, new walls were primed and painted; some in the group replaced sewer pipes, doors, and windows damaged as houses shifted in the storm. The key part is that 19 people worked for 40 total hours a piece, that makes for 760 hours in the week. That translates roughly to a gift to the people in Jackson County of $13,300. That's how much FEMA will take off the county's bill in exchange for the volunteer efforts.

As I kid I can remember singing Dan Schutte's song City of God. The lyrics have been echoing in my head since early Wednesday morning.

Awake from your slumber! Arise from your sleep!
A new day is dawning for all those who weep.
The people in darkness have seen a great light.
The Lord of our longing has conquered the night.

Refrain: Let us build the city of God.
May our tears be turned into dancing!
For the Lord, our light and our love
Has turned the night into day!

Early on as I pondered the song I was thinking this is a great song about the mission that the church has in the world today. But a sense of mission alone isn't enough. 19 people can appear on the Gulf Coast and bring nothing good with them, or 19 people can come with a mission and a vision and get some good work done. We have a mission in the church but accomplishing this mission demands vision. This is not the mission of one congregation or one denomination. We each have to understand that mission requires vision. One group going down to the Gulf can only do so much in the face of devastaion. But with a shared vision and commitment to pool resources we can do the very most good for the most people. The church in 21st Century America has begun to rise up to meet those in the greatest need. Those who have been to Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana or Texas know what our own eyes have seen. We know that too many families on the Gulf Coast are waiting to be helped by faith based organizations like Lutheran Disaster Response and many others.

Churches, the flesh and blood Body of Christ, with countless different arms, feet, and faces are the ones filling in the gaps that our government and private corporations won't. Volunteers giving time and donors giving resources make it possible for the hardest hit to go back home. For more information please contact Camp Victor or 228-872-5745. The people at Camp Victor estimate 6-8 more years of work ahead. They need our continued support to make it happen.

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