Posted by: JennyRain | February 26, 2007

The Divine Setup: Engaged by Grace

On February 4-10 a team of 19 of us from the Lake Oconee area caravanned to Camp Hope, an ministry of First Presbyterian (Gulfport, MS), to help rebuild homes and restore dreams of those families whose lives were decimated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. During the next five weeks I will be writing a series of articles on the experience. The last entry of the series will include a video documentary of our trip. For more information on how to participate in Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts, please see:
www.fpcgulfport.org

“Yes Lord, walking in the way of your laws, we wait for you; Your name and renown are the desire of our hearts,” (Isa 26:8).

Have I chosen this thing called ministry, or has it chosen me? Am I offering my hands and heart in service, or am I becoming a servant in the kingdom of God? How do I resolve the ethical dilemmas I witness in the Kingdom as a Christian, fully engaged and passionately ignited by Christ’s love while simultaneously remaining aware of the cultural tools that are available to me to advance God’s work on the earth? Am I humble enough to put “self” aside when too much of me is in the equation but remain completely aware that God works through me as an embodied “self” to partner with in His work here on earth? These are the questions I grappled with throughout our week on the Gulf Coast.

When I made the decision to participate in this trip, these questions were not even a speck on the radar screen of my existence. I have simply been unremittingly burdened for the victims of Katrina. It is unexplainable, unquenchable, and undeniable. Though I ruminated for the first day of the trip over my wisdom in leaving school and the potential distraction this trip could produce, I knew this trip was on the agenda. However, I could not quiet the thought-parade as doubts remained central stage in the theatre of the anxious for the first forty-eight hours and thoughts burdened my conscious in consistent reminder-missiles that “Jenny, you are not naturally smart. You have to study – a lot. This is cutting into your study time. This trip is not wise. Remember, if your grade point suffers, you will not get scholarships. If you don’t get scholarships, you don’t stay in school…” I had the amount of study hours I was losing calculated to the nano-second.

Would any of this make any difference, really, on the overall ministry journey? It’s only a “short-term” trip after-all. What does painting a wall have to do with ministry to hurting hearts? When I arrived and noticed that I was one of ten women in a mess-hall full of men (seventy to be precise), I was under half their age (most were over sixty and I am thirty-six), and I was visibly much more of a priss than most of the missioners (they were all in credible-dungarees and construction-jumpers, I was wearing a tinker-bell t-shirt and jeans), I was more than a little nervous. Added to my concern was the fact that the women were gravitating towards the aprons, obviously choosing to remain at camp in the kitchen though I continued to feel a strange affinity to the hammer and nails and box of paintbrushes in the corner. How can I possibly contribute? Maybe I should have stayed at home.

The Power of Koinonia

As providence would have it, our team of four (I was the only woman) landed at a house that primarily needed finishing work so I was immediately trained on caulking, spackling, and steadfastly handed a paintbrush. The men had complete confidence in my ability, never once doubting, criticizing, or offering “helpful hints” that were condescending. They simply smiled, encouraged, and believed in my ability as I smeared my step-father’s flawless paint-edging with caulk, broke through spackled outlets with my overly rambunctious sanding (I had to re-do most of them), and dribbled bright-orange paint on the family’s new light-gray carpeting. This community I had found myself in simply kept on believing and by day two I began mastering all of my assigned tasks. We were Baptists and Presbyterians, young and old, conservative and liberal, yet we worked together as the church towards a common goal.

Living “Lite”

The family we came to serve had been living back and forth between a FEMA trailer and their parent’s home for over eighteen months. There were five humans (mom, dad, and three kids) and four animals (two dogs and two cats). The FEMA trailer was only slightly longer than my Honda SUV and was one of many on the street. Eighteen months in a twenty-foot FEMA trailer! The family had lost everything in the storm including house, three of their cats, furniture, and clothing. When they walked back into their neighborhood after the storm waters had abated, all they had was the clothing on their backs, their memories, and their Jeep Wrangler.

For the next seventeen months, the family would dodge, fight, and claw their way through the system to earn the right to wait for help. They were required to continue paying mortgage and utilities on a house that was uninhabitable, and were granted very little assistance on wading through the overwrought and overburdened system of federal aid. After months of waiting they realized they were firmly “stuck in the middle,” earning too much money to qualify for federal help and too little to be able to pay for the repairs on their own. Added to their stress was the contractor price-gauging that is occurring all over the gulf coast. An electrical rewiring job that would normally cost $2,600 was priced at $10,000 and sheet rock that should have been $10 a square foot was $100. Their insurance paid out a mere $16,000 and after the $10,000 electrical job, that left them $6,000 to repair their entire house.

“Samaritan’s purse has been a God-send,” said Suzie*, sitting proudly on her newly- installed tub. “Without the aid of places like Samaritan’s purse, the churches, and the donations we have received, we would be living in our trailer indefinitely. We still have no idea what we are going to do about furniture though, because all of the money we did have has gone to getting the walls back up on our house.” I envisioned Suzie and her family sleeping on the floor. Would they even have sleeping bags? Pillows? Pots and pans to cook dinner? Plates to eat off of?

Nothing. What does it mean to have no-things. I have thankfully never experienced that lack in my life and so I struggled to wrap myself around that truth. I desperately wanted to at least attempt to understand the family’s experience so I could minister from my heart rather than my head. I felt selfish, burdened with the memory of “stuff” clouding my ability to embrace their reality. What is it like to wake up that first morning after the storm, in your car, walk into what was left of your house, and see everything you have known – gone?

As I ruminated on Suzie’s condition, I began to sense an overwhelming sense of powerlessness. I felt a deep abiding need to “fix” and “repair,” to get them furniture, to solve the emptiness that threatened to engulf them, and me. My emotions seethed at the mortgage company, the utility companies, and the insurance companies. “How could they have left this family with nothing! It is not right! How could this family be stranded, in a FEMA trailer for eighteen months, cramped, abandoned, alone, and bereft? How could the system do this to them?” How could God? This was a question that would chase me all week long…

*Actual names have been modified to protect the family’s privacy.

All writings copyrighted by author 2.26.2007 (c)

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