Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Mission Mississippi - Friday

We woke up Friday to more rain. In yesterday's blog I failed to note that on Thursday I had called my husband from the toolshed and left a message along the lines of, "Hi, honey. They are calling for tornadoes here. Worry not. I'm in a flimsy toolshed one mile from the gulf and surrounded by trailers. I'm sure I'll be fine. I'll call when it's over."

Friday it was so dark from the storm that we all had trouble waking up. Or maybe that was the fatigue. Our crew was starting to look bedraggled. The Beverly Hills Episcopalians were dragging, too, and looking more like Congregationalists from Wichita. (I have no idea what this means. My only defense is that it sounded funny at 6 AM in Mississippi. I am sure the fine Protestants of Kansas are a glamorous bunch.)

My claim to fame on this trip is that on Friday morning as one supervisor insisted on the very tall Eli being in his group, and the Americorps volunteers were snatched up, my grounds guru Mike said that my considerable skills were needed again in the toolshed. It is good to be loved. We did all kinds of strange little jobs and I used half a dozen power tools and random gizmos I do not know the names of. Mike has a knack for introducing the novice to the fun parts of home repair. Who knew that the glob of caulk stuck in the nozzle is called the worm?

The emotional toll of relief work was being felt by all. We began to see houses according to water lines. Had the water reached the second floor? The roof? Was this house a rebuild or a redo? We were able to name all the little towns we'd been working in and knew the difference between Bay St. Louis, Waveland, Long Beach, and Gulfport varieties of devastation.

That we would have another trip was now a given. The questions before us became: whom do we invite to join us? How do we make this trip possible for people with limited income and those with construction skills? What supplies will we remember to bring next time? If Jack can't come, how do we get a Muffaletta sandwich back home to him?

Other than the depression and the weight of the realization of how much is left to do, what I felt strongly was a need to rid myself of stuff. Once you see the pictures, the video footage, the boxes of belongings in the front yard, the husks of residences, the stairs that used to lead to home and now lead to nowhere... it makes you think about your own home differently. I pictured what my home would look like under water. I imagined losing it all and what I would miss. I thought about how much I could do without that I am currently living with.

This was not all imagination for me. A few years ago Tropical Storm Gaston dumped 11 inches of rain on Richmond, VA. Our basement was flooded with 3 feet of water. I remember looking down into the water and seeing the oil tank floating on its side and feeling numb. I cleaned out the basement with the help of a friend and two Mormon missionaries. My husband had been emotionally paralyzed by the extent of the mess. And we had been very lucky.

As I worked in a toolshed in Mississippi listening to the rain pounding on the roof with only one pair of clean socks and undies to my name I imagined going home and getting rid of half my clothes, my sewing supplies, my books, my little mementos. I imagined my children running through a house with less stuff and being happy and free. I imagined that ridding myself of excess belongings would rid me of the weight of the memories of Mississippi's losses. I was getting loopy, as you can see.

Friday wasn't all contemplation. The UU crew had completed the sign that would commemorate our visit. I noticed that plenty of space was left to add names on our next visit.

In the evening we headed out to celebrate the culmination of our week. One group went to the local seafood festival. I took a group to New Orleans. What was I thinking? Is there anything less contemplative than Bourbon street? Okay, yes. Vegas. And the similarities between the two are multiple. The whole NOLA experience was a total culture shock for me coming at the end of our mission trip.
After a week of eating to replace all the calories burned on houses, we were confronted with cuisine. After a week of minimalist living I had the shock of a $17 bowl of gumbo. After a week of wardrobes chosen for utility, we were all amazed by the abundance of New Orleans cleavage. The shocks were not all unpleasant, however. Working construction made me look at the French Quarter with approving eyes. "Wow. Check out that siding - all wood. Nice." And I went wild over the beignets (doughnuts). In fact, I could swear I woke up Saturday with a beignet hangover.

But the most memorable part of New Orleans was the drive into the city. We passed block after block of dark, sometimes windowless apartment buildings. My Katrina eyes were only able to look for Katrina familiar. And it was everywhere. By the end of our 3 1/2 hour NOLA visit I was overwhelmed. Like my 2 year old daughter, I handled the overload by falling asleep in the car.

Mission Mississippi - Thursday

I am so grateful for all the people who supported me and my family while I had an almost two month long flare-up of Rheumatoid arthritis. I seem to be almost on the other side of it. I realized this when I woke up in a bunk bed in a Mississippi work camp at 6 AM after a day of landscaping... and I did not want to die.

"It's a new dawn. It's a new day. It's a new life for me. And I'm feeling good." Nina Simone

Not to say I wasn't sore. Lots of parts were weary, but I felt great considering the new bed, new schedule, new demands, and new weather. Yes, our luck had run out. Wednesday night it had started to rain and it was still going Thursday AM.

In spite of my newfound spryness, at breakfast it became clear that the tasks in the houses for the day were beyond my capabilities. I volunteered to stay and work on the grounds. In addition to the building crews, every day 4-6 people are needed to stay at the camp to cook, clean, repair, and bring order. I had met the king of the grounds, Mike, and he reminded me of some of my uncles and cousins. He had also uttered the quote of the week: Looking at your crew, you were the last one I would have guessed was the preacher. I decided to give it a try.

Grounds work is not the sexy Habitat for Humanity kind of stuff. Mostly we worked on fixing leaks, refurbishing yard tools, and organizing nails. I had an Americorps kid as my partner. He was a nice guy and much better with tools than I. We were getting along well until I realized I was old enough to be his mother. The highlight of the day was the use of big equipment. I didn't know I had a thing for big equipment. I do.

Thursday was also the day I had to sing for my supper, so to speak. As the clergy rep. of my group, I had volunteered to lead worship before dinner. I was not feeling calm about this. The worship on other days had been led by the camp director who is an Episcopal priest. She was delightful and had one of the best Southern accents ever distilled into sound, but it was a very different idea of worship. I had two choices - try to fit into the worship style of the camp, or let my flag fly. You know which I chose.

God bless those sweet Episcopalians. They loved it. They smiled. They clapped. They sang with abandon. They positively shivered with delight when I passed out my little take away gifts. And my UU crew acted the missionaries, later explaining UU belief, liturgy, and practice like pros. Should I ever become a travelling evangelist, the UU Mississippi work crew will be the apostles.

The day ended on a particularly high note. I would be remiss if I did not hail the food at this camp. They have a chef who corrals volunteers and food donations and creates some fantastic vittles. He's thinking about making a camp cookbook. This is the only camp I've been to where that sounds like a great idea. Thursday night was Muffaletta (excuse spelling - I'm guessing here) sandwich night. This meal caused a pastoral crisis as one of our group declared after his first Muffaletta that he may not be returning home.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mission Mississippi - Wednesday

Wednesday I moved to another house. My role this time: landscaping. In case you do not recall, I am a firm believer in letting the land do its own scaping. Mowing, weed eating, and general yard maintenance is done on our property twice a year, whether it needs it or not. (OK, my husband does it more often than that, but I do not support him in these unnecessary and frivolous endeavors.) So it was with fear and chuckling that I got behind a commercial strength mower and later strapped on a mega-weed eater.

Only one thing could make me do something this uncharacteristic: a good-looking man. He is pictured above. Mr. G is hoping to move into his new house within a week. He's been hanging out while the crews are there to drive that point home, as it were. It worked with me. Our crew cleaned, painted, mowed, whacked weed, leveled the yard, and swept like crazy. After I could mow and whack no more I chatted Mr. G up.

The house we worked on was a 3 bedroom deal that is bigger than my house. Mr. G is the same age as my grandma. I asked him his plans for this big place. "I'll roam around in it," was his reply. Sounded good to me. I then thought to ask, "How big was your home you lost?"
"Oh, a lot bigger than this."

After some talk about his life, careers, and family Mr. G revealed that previously he had lived in an apartment that was attached to a lounge. That was the big house. That's right, folks, the good Episcopalians, Lutherans, and Unitarian Universalists of this country were replacing the neighborhood juke joint with a house.

Bummer, I thought.

Mr. G seems to have taken his forced retirement from the bar business well. The neighborhood is full of his family and he is looking forward to being in his own space again. He is also a generous soul. As the crew left in the afternoon he gave them a pile of crawfish. Man, I bet that was a great bar in its day.

After work, the UUs cleaned up and we headed to the local UU church. This felt like homecoming. We had a great time meeting the Mississippi UUs. They have had a rough time of it. We had worship, a class, and some time just getting to know each other. We had a lot in common. This made their stories of post-hurricane struggles seem even more personal. They have kept their doors open through hard work, perseverance, and the support of UUs from around the country. They are nervous about the future, though.
The nervousness of the Gulf Coast UUs was echoed by other Mississippi residents throughout our stay. The FEMA trailers are being taken back without housing to replace them. The aid is only trickling in now, but it has been sporadic and unpredictable all along. The ripoff artists continue their work and people are having their "new" homes condemned or are discovering the shoddy work as houses start to fall apart. Fewer first-time volunteers are working at the camps as the rest of the country believes the need has passed.

Our group encountered this as we planned this trip. Many people expressed their belief that we shouldn't be going, that our energy and money were best used in other ways, that if the UUA is discontinuing their relief efforts why should we bother, that our timing and preparation were not enough. What about the needs in our own city?

There is always a reason not to take the risk to help someone. Who can forget the Live Aid planes of the 80s sitting on the tarmac and full of food that wasn't getting to starving people? No one wants to be on the boat of supplies to Myanmar that sinks. There are better ways to give help than others. All of this is true.

But this is also true. Our band of hopeful and helpful but not professionally skilled volunteers gave 360 hours of service to 6 homes. Everywhere we went the locals made a special effort to thank us for not forgetting them. The Gulf Coast UUs had a fun and uplifting evening with like-minded strangers. Mr. G will move into his own home this week after waiting almost three years.

The inkling was there from the start, but by Wednesday we knew. We are coming back to Mississippi. Soon.

Mission Mississippi - Tuesday

The camp we chose to work through is called Camp Coast Care. It is an Episcopal/Lutheran camp. I didn't get the story from the director, but the word in the bunkbed lodge was that so many of the churches were destroyed that this camp was erected as the new church, at least for St. Patrick's Episcopal. People from a variety of religions come to the camp, however, as was evidenced by the MASH 4077-like signposts that showed groups who had been coming for the past two years.

Along with our group, there was an Americorps crew of young kids who were great workers. There was a way cool family of 7 who came in honor of the matriarch's birthday and Mother's Day. There was a Episcopal church group from Cape Cod and another from Beverly Hills. ("We don't live there. We just go to church there," they kept telling us.) And then there were half a dozen singles and doubles who came on their own.

My bunkmate, Leann, has been to this camp 6 times since Katrina. Mission trips are Leann's deal. I get the impression that her congregation at home is not particularly liberal, and Leann would fit in at the hippiest of UU camps and conferences, so she gets her service needs met on mission. From what we saw, Leann will have many more opportunities.

For those of you who are blissfully ignorant, Hurricane Katrina was a category 5 hurricane that blasted the Gulf Coast of the US in 2005. Tuesday AM as we drove to our work site, I would have guessed that it was a category 3 or 4 and that it hit 9 months ago. The major highway that runs down the gulf coast is Highway 90. This was Highway 90 last week.

As we drove we kept seeing cut-ins for driveways. Tons of them. But when we would look up the driveway there would be either nothing, a concrete slab, or what came to be known as "stairs to nowhere"- the last remnants of a home. I'd seen a couple of these in the Outer Banks or down near Miami after Hurricane Andrew. I have never seen mile after mile of ghost town like I saw in Long Beach, Gulf Port, Bay St. Louis, and Waveland, Mississippi.

The shock was a slow build. First you learn what a Katrina cottage and a FEMA trailer look like and then you realize they're everywhere. Next you notice the slabs and driveways. Then you see the construction vehicles everywhere. The broken highway. The homes of the wealthy and the casinos that were rebuilt immediately. The rough roads. The broken piers. The empty beaches. The few standing buildings that were not demolished but are unusable.

We got to the house and began the sheet rock installation. I am a good tool passer, measurement rememberer, ladder holder, and encouragement giver. I am a really good sweeper. Sadly, my real skills were needed when a member of our crew sliced his thumb with a utility knife. Lucky for him, it wasn't a dangerous injury. Lucky for me, his wife insisted he get it looked at. So for two and a half hours I got to do what I am trained to do: sit in an ER waiting room.

In the afternoon our group split up. I got to go to another house and do something else I was born to do: tape plastic over windows for painting. Height comes in handy. Another camper and new friend was Eli. Eli is 6'8". One of the construction supervisors grabbed Eli and wouldn't let him work anywhere else. "He can hold sheet rock to a ceiling flat-footed!" the ecstatic supervisor told me. I, too, would be snapped up for my gifts - but that is a lesser story and doesn't come until Thursday.

The painting crew was in a fine mood. We got a ton of work done in the afternoon, were feeling useful, had great weather... then we went to rinse off our brushes and sprayer. That's when I noticed the box. This was in the front yard. It had random dishes, jars, part of a lamp, some utensils. There was also the remnants of the family patio under the tree and a handmade sign saying "Do not move the bricks!" To us, this house was a sense of usefulness - to someone else it was a lifeline. Has it arrived in time? I wondered.

My Glamorous Life

"I can't. I'll be on a mission trip to Mississippi."

These have to be some of the oddest words I have ever said as a UU minister. But last week I made them a reality. 8 members of my two beloved congregations and I went to Long Beach, Mississippi to be part of the re-building effort from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It was a life-changing trip.

My crew arrived on Sunday but I couldn't come until Monday due to a standing Sunday AM commitment. (Excuses. Excuses.) The trip to the camp was uneventful and not particularly enlightening. Mississippi looks alot like central Florida. And an airport, a Chevron, and railroad crossings look the same most anywhere you go..

One instant eye-opener that I was indeed in the South: as soon as I stepped outside the terminal I was bumped by what appeared to be copulating lightning bugs in flight. Hey, Lovebugs! I'd forgotten all about them. I know virtually nothing about lovebugs except that they fly while having sex. (Ah, the jokes I am holding back at this moment!) We saw many of them during the week. It would appear that their in-flight navigation systems get all kerplooey while in the act, so they are forever landing on well-intentioned Katrina relief workers. I felt like I was the room of the "Get a room!" comments.

We got to the camp and it was, well you can see for yourself. It was sparse. Having made a career-hobby of ministering in church camps, however, it was some of the nicest digs I've seen in years. Great bathrooms, good food, nothing stinky - I loved it. My flock had spent the day installing insulation. They were in good cheer and I was in awe as these people I had previously seen handing out Sunday AM programs, singing in the choir, and working in committees described ladders, heat, staple guns, sweat, and the distinctive itch of fiberglass.

I began to nervously wonder: What on earth will a 6 ft tall, arthritic minister have to contribute?

And then came Tuesday.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Omens and Synchronicity

There are supercool aspects to being human and I like to keep tabs on them. When having a bad day, I like to run through my little list of the supercool and remember why I am here. Some examples:

1) Anyone who takes public dance breaks.

2) That orange light that sometimes comes at sunset and in which everyone looks like a super-model.

3) Discovering a secret talent in a friend. (This week it was a bring-down-the-house karaoke rendition of "Viva Las Vegas!")

4) The bonding of small children and canines.

5) Synchronicity

On #5 - I have spent 3 months sadly visiting my buddy Canadian blogger's site as he took some time off to do something shady and despicable (work). Twice a week I go and look at previous posts and hope he comes back.

While he was gone, a curio turned up in my front yard. There's a particularly generous and sweet UU who lives on my block.

Me: Did you leave an angel in my yard?

Her: A Venus of Willendorf, or one of those Easter Island statues maybe. An angel, no way.

Me: Good point. Actually I think it is a sprite or a fairy. There's one at the other end of the street, too.

Her: Hey, that's cool. I wish I had left it.

I took some shells that my son had deposited in the yard and put them at the base of the sprite. I had plans for a full-on holy site. I was about to take a pic of it and post it on the blog... and it disappeared.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Canada a picture of angry Jesus floated into my blogging buddy's yard. And he felt the need to write about it.

This is the week to leave an omen in someone's yard.


I'm a UU and a Virginian which can be a tough cohabitation at times.

The Commonwealth has been known to trample over basic tenets of Unitarian Universalism. Making marriage a civil right for all? Nope. Protecting the beautiful environment in which we live? Not if coal or crabs can be harvested.

And UUism is not real comfy with Virginia-isms like... "Heavens to Betsy", "Glory be", and "Hell's bells." So, never did I think I'd be able to say in standard Virginia speak, "I'm going on a mission trip."

But here we go! 9 of us from the two churches are headed down to Mississippi to do some Katrina rebuilding work. The main crew leaves this weekend. I join them on Monday for the week. I doubt I'll be able to blog during the week, but I am planning to take notes and pics and good wishes to our Mississippi UU's.

Tried on my hand-me-down steel toed boots last night. Not lady-like. Don't tell my fellow Virginians.

CH is for Church

Mama and Little Man are making an ABC photo scrapbook...
Little Man: I want this picture.
Mama: Why, honey? F for fountain?
Little Man: NO. It's the church. You know CH, CH, church.
Mama: That's just the picture I took when the fountain was clogged. You don't want this in your nice scrapbook.
Little Man: Yes, I do! Mama, that's our church. It's the place where we learn to love.
(T is for tears of P for pride and J for joy.)

Thursday, May 08, 2008

Eleven Days

Eleven Days

4 Sunday AM services
1 Sunday PM service
2 Vespers services
5 staff meetings
2 weddings
1 guest lecture at seminary
2 books read
11 breakfast battles between two children
18 trips to and from 2 schools
4 sessions of PT
2 sessions of dry needling (Yes, it is as bad as it sounds.)
1 all ages Kentucky Derby party (left before the tragedy)
1 night karaoke (surreal)
2 vet visits
5 close calls with a dying beagle
1 postponed memorial service for beagle (yay!)
13 newspapers read
2 nights insomnia

no TV
no blogging
no front porch feet propping/cloud gazing
no bundt cakes baked