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Hope Admist the Ruins of Hurricane Katrina

January 30, 2006—The morning was quite surreal. I drove in to Biloxi, Mississippi this morning at 7:30 a.m. in a dense fog. As I reached the main drive along the Gulf—highway 90—bits of trash dotted the live oaks and the occasional ruined mansion seems to rise through the mist.

I stop the car and walk up to one slab. The only thing remaining from what must have been an impressive home is a decapitated jockey statue near the front steps, which now lead to no where. I drive for a couple of miles and see only ruins. I wonder what I’m seeing. I wonder aloud whether this slab was a house, or those ruins were a motel, or maybe a condo. Sometimes it’s fairly easy to tell what might have been. Mostly not.

Following the directions I printed off a website, I make the proper turns and soon find myself at the Lutheran Church of the Good Shepherd. I park and walk up to a tool shed where various items are being checked out. “Where do I check in?” I ask a man whose Lutheran Episcopal Disaster Response nametag tells me is Keith.

Keith asks what I can do and before I can hem or haw, he asks “Have you mudded sheetrock before?” I allow that I have and try to add that I’m not too good at it. But he is already saying that the fact that I have mudded sheetrock before this morning makes me “an experienced worker.” I am given an inexperienced co-worker, Robert from LaCrosse, Wisconsin, and before long we are joined by eight more Lutherans, these down from South Dakota. As you read this column, pause now and you can probably hear someone in Camden County laughing loudly at the idea that I am now an expert on mudding sheetrock.

With the Gulf Coast still enshrouded in fog, we drive to the worksite, with Keith leading the caravan, leaving once we have found our worksite. By 9 a.m., I’m mudding sheetrock joints in the home of a Biloxi Policeman. His house was hit by a six foot tidal surge that ripped out the brick walls and sheetrock and left the roof supported by 2x4s.

The houses on the cul-de-sac are not unlike my own street in Sugarmill. The houses would have sold for about $140,000 before the storm. The insurance company gave the patrolman’s family $25,000 to start over. This I learn from Chris, another patrolman who drops by with supplies. The department is working with 20 officers to get their houses repaired on the meager insurance checks.

When we break for lunch—sandwiches made at a Lutheran Church in South Dakota—I find a small china plate out in the yard. Apparently it came from the neighbor’s house, which is still in ruins. I see a stack of dishes and various household items in the neighbor’s garage. As I add my plate to the pile I see that the top dish on the stack says it is for “Mother’s Day 1981” and bears the inscription, “Cherished moments last for ever.” I add desert plate to the small pile that is all that remains of the house’s contents.

A man from a house across the street walks over to talk. He lives in an RV in front of his wrecked house and seems genuinely pleased to see the progress on the policeman’s home. He says, “If it weren’t for the churches, nothing would be going on here.” I saw motel parking lots packed with pick ups and vans bearing construction company logos, so I know that’s not completely true, but it’s not wrong either—certainly not on this street, where our crew is the only sign of progress among the devastation.

We pack up at 5 p.m. with a lot of progress to show for our day. Everyone has given the task at hand the very best work they had in them, never excepting less than the best before moving on. I am reminded of a quote from Thomas Merton who said we should, “do ordinary tasks perfectly to the glory of God.” Maybe we weren’t perfect today, but we came as close as we knew how to make it. And our work was definitely done to the glory of God.

Camp BiloxiAs the sun sets I am back at Good Shepherd. There are two circus tents, with wood floors and 64 bunk beds apiece. Nearby is a dining hall tent, RVs are scattered alongside a gravel drive under some trees that survived Hurricane Katrina. Porta potties and a couple of tents with showers round out the facilities filling the churchyard.

It’s now 6 p.m. and I’m sitting in the dining hut. Hamburgers and hot dogs with baked beans are being served. The tent is filled with the happy sounds of roughly 100 exhausted and deeply satisfied workers. They regale one another with tales of a day spent working to provide people they may never meet with a better house and reason to hope for a better future.

Considering my job, it’s probably odd that I think so, but I have sometimes have real problems with organized religion. I wonder about denominations and hierarchies and whether God is best worshipped and served through such a structure. And then there comes a day like today, which shows denominations at their best doing what individual churches could never accomplish. Lutherans and Episcopalians working together. And all along the Gulf Coast numerous denominations are working hard as well, joining together doing ordinary tasks to the glory of God.

The devastation I glimpsed through the fog this morning was daunting. The clean up and rebuilding is nowhere near finished, and may in fact take a decade. But in this tent full of the chatter of people with sore muscles, I find hope for both the Gulf Coast and organized religion.

(The Rev. Frank Logue is pastor of King of Peace Episcopal Church.)

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