Monday, March 13, 2006

New Orleans

I just returned with my mom from a few days in New Orleans to help with Hurricane Katrina Recovery efforts and I must say it was a powerful experience. As I initially drove into the city, the damage from the hurricane was visible. Roofs were collapsed. Fences looked like grenades had been set off in front of them. Massive trees were uprooted. There was a catch in my breath as I saw firsthand the devastation that had been caused. And then as we proceeded further into New Orleans, we could begin to see the water lines that still remained on homes and buildings that revealed how much flooding had actually occurred. As I began to ponder the sheer volume of water that it would take to flood a whole city, I was overwhelmed.

We finally got to the place where we'd be staying, the Good News Camp which was meeting in City Park. The camp has housed and fed thousands of volunteer workers since the hurricane. We joined with several hundred Impact Movement and Campus Crusade staff and students who were also working during their spring breaks. Shortly after our arrival, we dropped off our stuff at our "home" for the next few days - a massive tent filled with dozens of cots. We located the on-site porta-johns and the limited showers available for our use. We then sat down for our first dinner where we got to meet several Campus Crusade students that had driven over 30 hours to serve the residents of New Orleans. I am continually amazed at the volunteer spirited exhibited by this generation of students.

That evening I helped to pick up a bunch of supplies that would be needed for our workers -- shovels and safety goggles. What an eerie feeling it was to be driving in a major city at night with almost no traffic on the road. Most street lights were out and had been replaced by 4-way stops at nearly every intersection. After a long day of driving and adjusting to New Orleans, I snuggled into my sleeping bag for a short night's rest.

Up early the next morning before 6 a.m., I ate a meager breakfast and joined the work team that I'd be with that day, students from U. of Virginia, Virginia Tech and N. Carolina State. We went to a house in the 9th Ward and what we witnessed was shocking. Houses had been torn from their foundations and floated to other spots. There was debris, trash and vehicles everywhere. It literally looked like a war zone. We eventually got to our destination on Nelson Street. An older lady in her early 60's greeted us in the street. Her name was Miss Gerri and we would be gutting her house out that day.

She told us that she had lived in the house for 36 years and was planning to re-build it. Her neighbor, an elderly man confined to his home, didn't make it out of the flood and was killed. After a time of prayer, we went to work. We tore down wood, drywall, trim & baseboards, and ripped out everything with mold on it. Essentially, all we left there was the frame of the house standing since all the furniture and applicances and personal belongings had been ruined. From inside the house, you could see that the water had risen to a level of about 7 feet and had rested at about five feet.

Miss Gerri shared with us that she had received an estimate of $5,000 on the work that we had done that day. It was quite humbling to see how God had used us to serve this dear women. She mentioned to our team how encouraged she was to see a group of African American students serving her community. She said that she had seen a number of volunteers who were mostly white, but had yet to see a predominately African American group there. It wasn't the only time that our students heard this said and it was motivating for our students to hear how God is using The Impact Movement to serve the black community in very tangible ways. Check out this article on that comments on our efforts in New Orleans.

On our second work day, we traveled to a church that needed some work done. We helped to paint the walls, clean out trash and remove a bunch of larger items that would be picked up by FEMA. I was so impressed with the team of students that I worked with. I heard little (if any) complaining from them. They were working hard, enduring crummy nights of sleep, cold showers and less than tasty meals. But they willingingly identified with those that have suffered for months as a result of Katrina.

And after completing another exhausting day of manual labor, we traveled to the lower ninth ward to see the worst hit section of the city. I really wasn't prepared for what I saw. Full city blocks where flattened. The houses that remained had water lines up to the roofs. Cars were turned over everywhere. It literally looked as if bombs had been dropped on the city. It was quite sobering as we thought about those whose lives had been turned upside down as a result of all that had happened. As we stood less than a hundred yards from the levee that had broken and caused the water to flood this area, we prayed for those residents who had once called this home. For God's strength, comfort and peace in the midst of true suffering.

This experience was a tremendous reminder of what is truly important in life. It is not things and possessions. Being there made me miss my wife and kids even more than when I'm typically traveling. When you see what it's like for people to actually lose everything, it makes you realize that our "stuff" isn't important. The priority that we place on homes and cars and clothes and stereos is not what life is about. Life is really about relationships -- our relationship with God and with each other. Unfortunately, it usually takes tragedy to remind us of this.

I'm thankful to have had this experience. I'm proud to be identified as a Christian knowing how we've responded to these efforts in the gulf region. It is followers of Christ who are leading the way in caring for the people there. We are not getting paid to do this. We are actually paying to get down there and for having the privilege of serving of others. For those that argue about hypocrites in the church, I think this is a great example of God's people faithfully living out His admonishment in Micah 6:8 to "do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God."

Here's another great article about Campus Crusade's efforts in the gulf region.

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