September 16, 2005

Mission Accomplished, Part I

As I mentioned earlier, my former pastor and frequent unofficial Macroscope contributor, Rev. Stephen Tillet and his church, Asbury Broadneck United Methodist Church in Annapolis, MD, were organizing a trip down to the Mississippi Delta to distribute aid, services, and some grace to those stricken by the hurricane. Here's the trip, in his own words:
We began our journey with the intent to “go and see about our kin.” The reports emanating from the south about the disparities in aid and treatment of Hurricane Katrina’s survivors led us to make our thousand mile journey to see for ourselves how hurricane survivors were doing. During the fours days we spent on the Gulf Coast, we saw and experienced awe at the power of nature and at the power of the human spirit.

After Eric and Joel, our “road dogs” from The Capital were reassigned to New Orleans, we continued our ministry to the hurricane survivors in Mississippi and Alabama. Pat and Tenette, the mother and daughter we brought back from the sewage infected public housing complex the night before, stayed with us that evening and worked along side of us for the rest of our stay. Vivian, Paul and LaTosha, the organizers with whom we were working, were helping as many people as possible to relocate, especially those in public housing in Biloxi, MS whose homes were overrun during Katrina by sewage from the adjacent sewage treatment plant.

Sunday started with a return to the warehouse, an old cotton mill, to load up the truck and bus, again, for more deliveries. We had spent much of Saturday helping to organize the warehouse and it had undergone a tremendous transformation by Sunday. What had once been piles of bags and boxes were now rows of clothes, shoes, water and toiletries. The two tractor trailers had been emptied and were gone. We quickly loaded up the truck and the bus to begin our drive to Mississippi to visit some of the areas hardest hit by Katrina.

As a grandson of Mississippi, I was familiar with the geography of northern Mississippi, but was quickly learning about the geography of the gulf coast. Towns I’d never heard of before became our intended targets for the day: Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Long Beach and Pass Christian. After getting stuck in a traffic jam for about an hour on I-10 West, our bus driver displayed great skill in making a U-turn to get us out of the jam. We passed through Pascagoula, MS, found our way to the parallel state road (Route 90 West) and continued our journey to Bay St. Louis, MS. The closer we got to the coast, the more prominent the devastation. We even passed by a large military ship that was no longer in the water but now rested now on land.

The National Guard was directing traffic in that area and prevented everyone but locals and rescue vehicles from venturing in certain directions. We were allowed, however, to go into Bay St. Louis. Rhonda Labat, a local resident, led us into the heart of what remained of the close knit community. A local congregation was providing services to the community and after several days, the Red Cross was finally on the scene, as well. Residents sat in their carports and driveways, swapped stories of surviving the storm and shared provisions with one another. The hot, dry weather allowed most people to stay outside of their homes, since most homes were now developing mold. Extended exposure to mold can have toxic and deadly consequences, so one of the greatest challenges for residents with nowhere else to go or those who refuse to leave is remaining healthy until reconstruction is completed.

Byron Curry and his neighbor, Eric (who has lived with cancer five and a half years beyond the doctor’s estimate, so far) took me in their car to tour Waveland, the next town over, while the rest of our group talked with the people of Bay St. Louis and gave out a few provisions. I noted the smell of mildew in the car, which also had been overrun with water during the storm. It gave me a headache in the short time I was riding, and I wondered how much damage it was doing to the folks who had to endure it every day with no other options.

Though it didn’t seem possible, Waveland seemed to have suffered more damage than Bay St. Louis. Other conversations would reveal that Long Beach and Pass Christian had suffered even greater destruction and no one except residents and “official” organizations were being allowed in. In spite of the devastation, I was impressed with the resilience and humor of the hurricane survivors. Vera Barnes of Waveland spoke of the large screen TV her grandson had given her. She had always felt it was too large for her and that it took up too much room. During the storm, as her son pulled her to safety on the roof of her house she saw it float away, along with the freezer and other appliances. Yet she was grateful to be alive and glad to see that Byron and Eric had survived, too. There had been losses in these towns, so every time people would see old neighbors and friends who had survived the storm, there was a reason to rejoice. Most residents say they intend to rebuild, so it seems these communities will survive and thrive again.

When we returned to our “home” in Mobile, Alabama on Sunday night, there was a BBQ waiting. Our hosts, Mr. & Mrs. Austin, who opened two of their houses to us, had told us they wanted to do a cook out for us and they waited until we returned from Mississippi at 9 PM. The old adage about southern hospitality is true! They and several of their eight children and twenty three grandchildren served us delicious southern home cooking and fellowship. We are thankful to have met them. As we parted company they reiterated several times that “whenever you’re in Mobile, you have a home.”

Monday our game plan was very clear, to return to Gulfport, MS, locate Katrina survivors in public housing, and distribute more of the provisions we had in the bus and truck. We also wanted to spend some time in fellowship with the residents, so we purchased two grills, some hot dogs and chips and cooked out for them while they gathered necessities for their families and friends. One teen age girl asked me where we were from and when I told her we were from Maryland she asked me why we had come so far and I told her, “to see you.” “Y’all came all this way to see about us? That’s alright!” she said with a big smile. That one conversation made the whole trip worthwhile. A teenager in Mississippi now has a personal understanding about the depths of Jesus’ proclamation that we should “do unto others as we would have them do unto us.” People from Annapolis, Maryland and elsewhere around the nation cared enough to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to see about their kin. We concluded our first mission trip to the south by dropping off the rest of our bounty at the Freewater Missionary Baptist Church in Bayou Le Batre, Alabama.

If we can somehow learn to maintain this sense of community throughout the rebuilding process and even once it’s completed, our nation will be better for it. At Asbury Broadneck, we will now make plans to buy our own coach bus for return trips to the Gulf Coast. There is much work left to do and it will likely take a few years to get it all done. We will be going back again...and again.

More in a bit....
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