Monday, February 11, 2008

A View from the Coast

Last week I was among 11 folks from Saint John's who traveled to Vancleave, Mississippi, to participate in work projects related to Hurricane Katrina.

Katrina? Isn't that old news? Hardly. Folks down there are still talking years, as in 3-5, before they're done.

Katrina? Aren't we late to the game on this? After all, that happened so long ago. Maybe. But don't forget this - while this is our first time to go to the Coast to deal with the impact of Katrina on folks down there, we must never forget that Katrina came to us in the days following the storm, as we housed 30 survivors for over 4 months at Nelson Woods.

And so we went - a group that represented Saint John's in all its diversity. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

Our job for the two days we worked? To continue the rehabilitation of Retha's house. Retha lives outside of Lucedale. Her home had some significant issues. We painted, inside and out; we did plumbing and ripped out the bathroom. There were septic tank issues. Carpentry was needed.

And we 11 tackled it, as best we could, head on.

Although the days were long and tiring, to a person, I believe we'd say it was a blessing. Retha's face glowed not only with appreciation for the work being done, but with stunning gratitude when she was presented the prayer quilt that you had prayed over.

A few comments and then an anecdote:

I was impressed with the work and organization of the Mississippi Conference in this effort. Vancleave UMC, is just like any of a number of rural United Methodist Churches across the country. The difference is that just behind this church is this huge building that is part barracks and part warehouse for material to be taken for work projects. It was very well run and I was reminded of the words from the folks at UMCOR when I dealt with them in '99 during the first of what is now too many tornadoes to strike the Jackson area: "we won't be the first ones on the ground, but we will be the last ones to leave."

Churches from all the country have been to Vancleave to offer help. It was truly impressive. However, I grew weary pretty quickly of being told that our group is not typical in that we were only working a weekend when most groups come on a Sunday and leave on a Saturday. First off, you don't need to tell me that a group from Saint John's is not typical.

To that I say, "Amen, praise the Lord." But any of you who know me understand how little patience I have for being told "how we do usually do things." Sure, we should always be willing to adhere to the patterns, if not "liturgy," that goes before us. I'm all for that. But in this instance, although I don't think it was on purpose, it was easy to communicate our presence and our work was less important than a group who had been there all week. I reject that out of hand. Our presence and willingness to do what the moment required be it one day or two weeks is the same. It is the "giving" that is the sign of Christ alive in us. We can't quantify gifts and grace. It was a point I felt needed to be made to our group before we left.

We learned the value to doing our part, having taken up the task from those who had done work before us, and, passing on the work to be completed to those who come behind us. It's a lesson of stewardship and the continuity and interdependency on the body of Christ. And that was an issue, because we each were tempted to fall prey to that Protestant work ethic thing that WE have to finish what WE started.

The people there were very warm and understood that this "mission" was there opportunity and responsibility. I appreciated that very much, and know all too well that a congregation with a "mission" is one that is vital and alive.

And now the story -

On the last day, with just a couple of hours to go before we called it a day, and, with plenty more left to do, I, while cutting a notch in some drywall for the bathroom, because I was squeezed into an awkward position, and in a hurry, did the stupid thing that I have warned others not to do, and turned the razor blade toward me to cut the last bit of sheetrock.

It went through the last bit of sheet rock, of course, and across my forearm, where it opened about an inch and a half gash. It was obvious from the moment it happened that this was more than a band aid deal.

Retha, the one for whom we worked, had just arrived home from her place of employment. She was in housekeeping services for the George County General Hospital. She drove her truck, while Jaime Winton (almost six month pregnant Jaime Winton), drove and we followed her to the hospital.

So, in we walked to the emergency room. Me, absolutely filthy, and holding the laceration together along with some Steri-strips that Steve put on it, and "mama to be," who was our team leader, and had all the UMVIM insurance info.

It wasn't until I was being triaged that the hospital staff assumed that Jaime was "Mrs. Jeffords." I mean, after all, she came in with me, she had my information, and she was concerned for me, and, she was very pregnant!

When they moved me from triage to an ER bay, they said, "if your wife can check you in, we'll get you cleaned up." Jaime dealt with all of that, out front, and I decided it wasn't worth telling the whole story of who we were and why we were there. I just wanted to get sewn up and on my way.

Well, after the 3rd or so reference to "my wife," I decided I just needed to tell the story. But I led into it in a way that could have mis-communicated what was true. I said, "Oh, she's not my wife."

The look I got from the nurse seemed to say, "Oh, so, you got her knocked up but you're not going to make an honest woman out of her."

And then I said, "I'm her pastor." The next look I got did not indicate clarity, but confusion bordering on disgust.

Little did I know that at the same time out front, Jaime is having the same issue trying to communicate who she is, who I am, and what we're doing there.

"Oh, he's my preacher."

More confusion.

After a while, we each, in our own way, told the story of who we were and why we were there. After we got back into the car, I told Jaime of the confusion and the looks I had received when I decided not to let the assumptions they had about us continue. She laughed and said she had to do the same thing.

Moral of that story - never assume you know anything based on what you see, or, beware of what happens when you travel with your preacher!

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