The last time, I travelled to Biloxi, Mississippi was with a group bringing relief supplies days after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast. This time I returned with another group to build a new house and I had the opportunity to see how much the area changed during the four years since Katrina.
Biloxi has changed but not enough. At first glance there were visible signs of prosperity. Glitzy casinos advertised the latest payout and featured entertainers. There were shopping malls, gift shops and restaurants everywhere.
But there was something else – something different, that you couldn’t help but notice.
For example: Beside a brand new Waffle House was an abandoned lot of a former business. In between a casino and a novelty shop were empty properties, each with the concrete foundation and all surrounded by weeds. Everywhere you travelled you saw signs of normalcy beside images of tragedy.
For me, it was a visible reminder of how much the area still needs help. The stamp of Katrina is still prevalent throughout the area. Beach front property once occupied by stately old mansions now contained a few new houses but also trailers; government issued MEMA cottages and abandoned lots.
“There is no middle ground,” said David Cumbest, pastor of Heritage United Methodist Church near Biloxi. “Everywhere you turn there are signs of prosperity and signs of poverty. Most of us would still be in MEMA cottages if not for the work of churches all over the country.”
David should know. For the past four years, his church housed literally thousands of church volunteers who come from all over the country to either repair existing homes or build new ones. The upstairs education building has been converted to house volunteers. In addition, a bunk house complete with showers, kitchen and a gathering room was built behind the church. Supplies are stored in two warehouses nearby. All in all, nearly 100 volunteers live, work and are supplied at this one church.
Church groups from all over the country still go to the Gulf Coast of Mississippi and New Orleans each week to help rebuild the area but truthfully, this is not the only reason why so many groups make the long journey and work so hard to help people they don’t even know. It feels good to help someone else but each person that goes receives far more in return than they ever provide in construction labor alone.
For example, our work group from the Lynchburg area was made up of local preachers, retired professionals and a few who took a week’s vacation from active careers. During the fourteen hours cooped up in vehicles we shared stories, swapped a few jokes and basically got to know each other.
We left Saturday and arrived Sunday morning in time for worship at Heritage United Methodist Church. At one point we were asked by, Rev. David Cumbest, the pastor to stand and receive the applause and prayers of a grateful congregation and community.
Each day our group along with three others shared food and cooking duties. After breakfast we packed a bag lunch for the work day.
The Lynchburg group is part of multi church effort to build a new house for Jeanie Lowery. Ms. Lowery and her father (who has passed on) lived in a house in Ocean Spring, Mississippi. Since the devastation of the home by Hurricane Katrina she now lives in a MEMA cottage which she along with thousands of other people will lose soon. Jeanie is 52 years old, disabled due to back problems.
On the work site we were assigned jobs to match experience. Carpenters were soon installing crown molding and building a deck while those of us less experienced were installing flooring or painting. For me, that meant – painting. In the midst of the work, Jeanie often joined us providing snacks, expressing appreciation and occasionally telling stories of her experiences during Hurricane Katrina.
Each night, we returned to the church to clean up and eat dinner. After eating the groups gathered for devotions and to share their experiences and what they meant.
During one session, a retired University Professor named Jim stood and shared his struggles with finding a meaningful relationship with God. “God seems to talk to others,” he said. “Why won’t he talk to me?” Shortly after retirement his wife unexpectedly died of cancer. Devastated by the loss, Jim described his struggle with grief but also spoke of the many friends who surrounded him with love. His brother called him frequently asking the same question: “Are you all right? Are you really all right?”
Frustrated, with his constant nagging, Jim finally asked: “What do you want me to do?” His brother suggested he start a Bible study. “A Bible Study? Why would I do that?” Jim responded. He himself did not understand what prompted him to say, “Yes.” Yet, it was the men’s Bible study and breakfast Jim started that helped him discover God had been talking to him all along. While helping others understand the Bible, Jim deepened his own relationship with God. Clear proof of God’s handiwork was evidenced by the men surrounding Jim that night who were all in Mississippi because of his Bible study. Later, one of our men commented: “It was worth coming to Mississippi just to hear Jim.”
On our final evening in Mississippi, we celebrated with dinner at a local restaurant so we could sample the famous Cajun Cuisine. (Delicious!) The next morning we left the Gulf Coast satisfied that we helped build a house for Jeanie Lowery. But on the long drive back we discovered that Jeanie was not the only one who was benefiting from our trip. We too were given a special gift of knowing we provided help for someone in need. We made a lot of new friends and best of all – we deepened our faith in God.
Jesus said, “What is the Kingdom of God like? How can I illustrate it? It is like a tiny mustard seed that a man planted in a garden; it grows and becomes a tree, and the birds make nests in its branches.” He also asked, “What else is the Kingdom of God like? It is like the yeast a woman used in making bread. Even though she put only a little yeast in three measures of flour, it permeated every part of the dough.” (Luke 13:18-21)
I like to think that our mission trip, like thousands of others was part of a tiny mustard seed that grows and becomes a tree or yeast that permeates every part of the dough. In our own way, we made a difference for someone, for a community and most of all for God and for ourselves.