This past week saw several five-year retrospectives of Hurricane Katrina on TV, from National Geographic's Witness Katrina to Spike Lee's HBO If God Is Willing and the Creek Don't Rise, sequel to When the Levees Broke. The nation wants to remember the worst natural disaster in its history.
For many of us, it's impossible to forget. Our family had just moved to Middle Tennessee after fourteen years on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I remember Sunday evening, August 28th, sitting in my bedroom, not yet fully moved in, watching the coverage on the web, talking with Suzie Harvey, parish administrator at Christus Victor. I remember a growing sense that this was the storm we had all dreaded.
The next morning, after the storm made landfall, I remember the early pictures of the devastation we saw, thanks to a Biloxi TV station's web site. I remember calling and calling and calling people on the Coast, hoping that someone would and could answer the phone. Just about everyone on earth we knew and loved had been in the path of this monster storm.
On Tuesday morning, I mentioned to a few members of St. Andrew, Franklin, TN, that I hoped to go down later in the week and, if possible, carry relief supplies in my ten-foot open trailer. Thanks to the amazing generosity of St. Andrew Church, by Thursday, I was looking for additional trailers and trucks to carry the huge volume of supplies that had been brought to the church in just two days.
Morgan and I left Saturday morning, with three trailers loaded beyond reasonable capacity with medicine, food, water, dog food, cat food, dog bowls, diapers, cleaning supplies and on and on. With us we took five volunteers, a Baptist minister from Nashville, a Church of Christ deacon from Texas, an acrobat from Russia, a doctor from Massachusetts and a retired Metro Nashville schools administrator, 100 gallons of gasoline and more than $13,000 dollars contributed by the people of St. Andrew to help in the early relief effort. We left behind in the church for the next trip down, hundreds of pounds of supplies which we couldn't fit in the trailers.
The devastation we saw was unbelievable. The destruction nearly total. It seemed sit-down-and-cry hopeless.
I remember that for close to three months after Katrina's landfall on that Monday morning, in spite of my Southern male persona, I was ever on the verge of tears. Out of the blue, sorrow would nearly overwhelm me.
Attending one of son Ben's high school football games, a group sitting behind me made some unfortunate comments about the intelligence of people who would live on the Coast. "They're all better off anyway," one of them said. "They're all just poor people who never had anything anyway. At least the government will feed them."
A few minutes after that remark, I realized that I was standing in the stands and screaming at these unsuspecting folk and telling them what I thought about their own ignorance and stupidity and small-mindedness and hardness of heart. It was a hard time.
Last week someone asked me if things were back to normal on the Coast. "No," I said. "Things will never be back as they were." Normal has changed as they said often in the post-Katrina days.
In the third chapter of Ecclesiastes, the wisdom writer muses: ". . . God has left us in the dark. . . we can never know what God is up to, whether God's coming or going." (That's how Eugene Peterson translates the eleventh verse of that chapter in The Message. ) Like the writer of Ecclesiastes, over the years I've become better able to accept, if not to understand, the mystery of God's way with the world.
But there is more than Ecclesiastes knows going on. During the week I was back on the Coast following Katrina, I saw that something more. The Coast was battered. Its people dispirited. But it wasn't hopeless. As it has always done, before the wind stopped blowing Christus Victor was reaching out to neighbors in need. The body of Christ was acting like it. The place was a mess, but it was a holy mess. What a witness to the presence of God, even in catastrophe!
I remembered one Parish Council meeting when another storm was churning across the Gulf of Mexico. Someone asked if we'd be taking on too much liability if we were a shelter. The debate went on. Should we or shouldn't we offer shelter. Finally, Suzie Harvey said, "You can call this a shelter or not, but when people around here are in trouble, this is where they come."
What better thing could you say about a church? "When people are in trouble this is where they come."
And they came five years ago. And amazing things happened. Lutherans and others from around the country began to join the people from Christus Victor, and to reach out to those who had been left homeless and struggling. With the significant help of city and county leaders, Camp Victor was born, a ministry of Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi and of many of God's people from around the country.
Now, five years later, more than 25,000 volunteers have walked the halls of Camp Victor and slept in its bunk beds. I meet these folks all over the country. Together they logged about 1,000,000 volunteer hours, labor valued at $19 million. They worked on over 1900 homes and rebuilt at least 500 of them. Many thousands more were helped through our other Gulf Coast facilities at Bethel in Biloxi, and Camp Coast Care in Pass Christian. God's people across the country, through their contributions of time and money have clothed, fed, housed and cared for thousands who needed help.
That's what we celebrate five years after the worst natural disaster in our nations history. We celebrate all that good work. We celebrate all those good people who have done all that work. We celebrate the faithful and hard working staff at these facilities, who have made it possible for those folk to volunteer. We celebrate the work we do together through partnership with Episcopal Relief and Development, Lutheran Disaster Response, the Diocese of Mississippi, and the congregations and people who make all this possible.
But most of all, we celebrate the God who was present when God's people came from all over the US and Canada to look after and comfort and clean up and rebuild. We celebrate the God who has been on the Coast wherever God's people have opened their doors to those in trouble. We celebrate the God who was here in every offer of love and support that people have made, in every shovel full of mud emptied from a house and every nail pounded into a board.
Five years after the destruction of Hurricane Katrina, we celebrate the God who calls us into community to serve those who are in need and to bless them and be blessed by them. We celebrate the God who, in the most hopeless of times, is cause for hope.
[Taken with permission from the ELCA Southeastern Synod newsweekly. Click here for the website.]
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