Tuesday, January 30, 2007

report to presbytery

Today nine of our 21 participants appeared before the Presbytery of New York City to offer our official report on the trip. Sorrel Ann (who couldn't attend) produced a wonderful photo presentation about the trip:

I also delivered a brief report on the trip which you can read as well.

After many months of planning, twenty-one Presbyterians and friends from eight different congregations, including four minister members of the Presbytery of New York City, set out on Saturday, January 13, for a weeklong work trip to the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Months of planning and expectation culminated in this strange and wonderful journey organized through Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the Presbytery of Mississippi Disaster Recovery Office, and Handsboro Presbyterian Church in Gulfport, Mississippi.

When we arrived in Gulfport, we were greeted warmly by Mississippians and Louisianans of all sorts – family and friends of group members, fellow Presbyterians and disaster relief volunteers from Missouri and Minnesota, young adult volunteers at our housing site, even the local residents who worked us with over the course of the week. The warm welcome surrounded us the entire week, even amidst a burst of the coldest weather of the winter so far in that region!

Once we emerged below the clouds over the coast that Saturday at sunset, the challenges before us started to become clear. I won’t attempt to describe what we saw – even the pictures we will share with you cannot do it justice, for they do not capture the sheer volume of destruction, the reality that so little was left untouched by the storm.

Hundreds of thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. While rebuilding has gone quickly for some, most people still face the challenges of insurance nightmares, long waiting lists for contractors, and limited social support systems. The devastation in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast remains beyond description or imagination, even after 17 months of reconstruction work – and good estimates are that only ten percent of the reconstruction work is completed.

Still, though, we offered what we could in the midst of a place that needs more than any of us can offer – a place scarred by the damage of a storm even as it still suffers from the sinfulness and injustice of our world that began long before August 29, 2005; a place recovering from disaster beyond description as it faces the reality that things will be forever different than they were before the storm; a place with fresh memories of government’s inability to help as FEMA packs up a bungled mess even as other hands from around the world pitch in to do what they can to make a difference; a place coping with despair and in need of great hope.

Our group of twenty-one joined over thirty thousand volunteers who had gone before us to work on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Alongside us for the week living at and working out of Handsboro Presbyterian Church were six men from Kansas City, Missouri, and fourteen men and women from Owatonna, Minnesota.

Over the course of the week, we offered a word of hope and peace as we cleaned out sheds, gutted houses, built fences, removed piles of debris, hung drywall, learned and practiced the fine art of taping and compounding, installed kitchen cabinets, built bunk beds, served and delivered meals, organized office paperwork, worked with children after school, made home visits, interceded on behalf of those in need, and wrote about our adventures for others around the world to read. We took an afternoon off from our work in Mississippi to see the damage in New Orleans for ourselves and to engage in a bit of economic relief work around the French Quarter. By the time our work ended on Friday afternoon, we were exhausted. The direct effects of our work were barely visible in the broad picture, but we hope and pray that a few lives might be changed by what we did accomplish.

We are grateful for the support you offered us along this journey: for the vision and financial gifts you gave that made the journey possible, for the time away to do this important work, and most of all for the prayers which carried us through even the difficult moments. Many of you followed our journey online through our blog, hearing about our adventures, seeing a few pictures, and sharing our trip in spirit even though you could not personally go along.

For all of you, though, we would now like to share a brief photo presentation of our experience made by one of our group members so that you may see for yourself the devastation of the Mississippi Gulf Coast and New Orleans, the hard work of Presbyterians from New York City, and a bit of hope that comes through God’s work in this time and place.

As you can see, there is much still to be done. Reconstruction is not yet complete, but you wouldn’t know that from watching TV or reading the newspaper. Mississippi and Louisiana have been largely forgotten – but we will never forget our experience there. In the coming weeks, those of us who journeyed to Gulfport have plans to get together again, to respond to the things that we have seen, to seek out a faithful way of response even at this distance, and to encourage others to go to Mississippi and Louisiana to assist in the ongoing relief efforts there.

While this is our only report to presbytery, this will not be the last you hear from us! In the meantime, tell others about all that remains to be done. Think about how you and your congregation can respond to the situation in Mississippi and Louisiana by sending volunteers or financial contributions. Consider joining in another work trip. Work to change the systems that allowed such a limited response to seem to be enough. And most of all, keep praying for all those in this region, that they might not just return to their homes but that they might have new and transformed lives as we all await the transformation of our world into the image of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

a sermon about the trip

I returned home Saturday night to the necessity of preaching on Sunday morning. The experiences of the week on the Mississippi Gulf Coast could not escape my attention today, so I share this sermon about the trip, preached today at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone in Queens.

Read the sermon

1 Corinthians 12:12-31a; Luke 4:14-21

It’s good to be back home. While I can say those words with complete honesty today after a wonderful week of mission work on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I also suspect that Jesus himself could say much the same thing when he went home to Nazareth and stood up to read in the synagogue.

Luke records the beginning of this story in today’s lectionary reading, telling of Jesus’ first trip home after he began his ministry around the countryside. He had started out elsewhere in Galilee, teaching in the synagogues and amazing the people with the power and presence of his message. When he came home, word of his notable teaching preceded him, and so when Jesus stood up in the synagogue to read, there was surely excitement in the air as they prepared to hear this hometown boy’s message for themselves.

He took the scroll of Isaiah that they had given him and began to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives

and recovery of sight to the blind,

to let the oppressed go free,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

Without further comment, he gave the scroll back to the attendant and sat down, but everyone there was waiting for him to say more. And so he spoke to the them: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Preachers like this story about Jesus. Many of us tend to identify ourselves with Jesus, for better or for worse, for whatever reason, connecting our call to proclaim God’s word with this story of Jesus preaching in his hometown and the other stories of Jesus proclaiming the good news. I suspect a lot of congregation members like this text too, because it gives them a good way to remind those of us preachers who like to preach long sermons that Jesus’ first sermon was one sentence long!

Whatever the point of his preaching, this text was Jesus’ first mention to the people that he was about proclaiming God’s Word. He didn’t claim this responsibility exclusively for himself, but he was clear that he had come to proclaim this message in his words and in his life. The Old Testament scripture he quotes is very much about speaking – but it also insists that speaking stands alongside doing, for the Spirit anointed Jesus to do actions as well – to bring good news to the poor and to let the oppressed go free in addition to his message of release, recovery, and favor.

Proclamation, you see, does not have to be in word – it can also be in deed.

Yesterday we celebrated the Lord’s Supper as we prepared to journey home from Mississippi. One of the requirements for celebrating either sacrament is that it be preceded by the proclamation of the Word. Since this sermon got written on the flight back to New York last night, and no one else offered to write a sermon for the occasion, those of us planning worship had to think about how the Word would be proclaimed for the occasion. However, we soon realized that proclamation really wasn’t necessary in that moment – we had been proclaiming the Word all week long. We had heard no long sermons or even engaged in Bible study beyond reading a few verses to shape our daily devotional time together, but every hour of our trip had been about proclaiming God’s Word, just as Jesus had been called to proclaim good news in his day.

We offered a word of hope and peace as we cleaned out sheds, gutted houses, built fences, hung drywall, learned and practiced the fine art of taping and compounding, installed kitchen cabinets, served and delivered meals, built bunk beds, organized office paperwork, worked with children after school, made home visits, interceded on behalf of those in need, and wrote about our adventures for others around the world to read.

And so at communion yesterday, there was no need to proclaim the Word again – instead, we remembered the experiences of our week as our different gifts had proclaimed the one word that we could offer to others.

In a week’s time, we did not finish the work of proclamation that needed to be done – we were only a small part of the extremely long and arduous process of recovery – but we offered what we could by the power of the Holy Spirit to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor in the midst of a time and place that needed to hear – and even more to see – the reality of God’s transforming presence. And so I think it is fair to say that these words were fulfilled in some small way in our proclamation through doing just as much as they are fulfilled each time the Word is faithfully preached on Sunday morning.

Just as a good sermon leaves us pondering how we are to be about responding to that proclamation of the Word, our work this week left us all with many thoughts about what is to come – about how we must respond to the things we experienced this past week.

The devastation in New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is beyond description or imagination – and good estimates are that only ten percent of the reconstruction work is completed. We encountered people living in houses that have had practically no work done on them since the storm, and we saw that only a handful of the thousands of residents of the Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans have returned. We drove through darkened and deserted neighborhoods and saw debris still awaiting removal nearly eighteen months after the storm. Even us visitors felt frustrated by the slow pace of recovery, as thousands of volunteers and the best processes of distributing aid can only do so much to rebuild after the destruction of hundreds of thousands of homes. Things are certainly not what they were immediately after the storm, but so much remains to be done that it is clear that the commitment to recovery must continue for many more years. Katrina’s destruction is no longer on the front page every day, but it remains an everyday reality for hundreds of thousands of people.

On its own, the proclamation of the Word means a great deal, but it can be multiplied many times over by our response to it. Addressing the problems of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast is not easy, and there are no overnight fixes, but like all responses to the proclamation of the Word, a few seemingly small steps can add up quickly. I hope that you will join Lisa, Rose, and all of us who journeyed from the presbytery as we respond to the Word proclaimed in and through us last week in Mississippi. I don’t think the next steps are clear, but I pray that the Spirit of the Lord will continue to be upon us as we bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, let the oppressed go free, and proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

The commitment before us to proclaim this message of justice, peace, and love on the Gulf Coast, in Louisiana, in New York City, and throughout the world is tremendous, but the Spirit empowers us to respond in faith and to proclaim all the good news in word and in deed.

May God continue to strengthen us to respond to the challenges of faithfulness in our time and to fulfill the message of proclamation in word and in deed at home and around the world every day.

Lord, come quickly, and fulfill your Word yet again!


Saturday, January 20, 2007

We're home!

Just a quick note to say that we're home! In the midst of a windy day in NYC, our flight got in early on a truly textbook landing. I'm home already -- not sure about anyone else -- but already missing the people on the trip (although I'm definitely looking forward to an indoor shower and a heated bedroom tonight!)

More reflections and home posts will be forthcoming, I'm sure. We're not done here yet!

At the airport

We're at the airport in Gulfport, getting ready to depart on our first flight to Atlanta. While we wait, it looks like they left our new drywall taping and compounding (aka "mudding") experts some work to do....

Communion together

After cleaning all the sleeping areas, showers, bathrooms, kitchen and fellowship hall and loading the luggage in the cars, a wonderful communion service was conducted by the Reverends James and Schaeffer. With the singing of "Holy, Holy, Holy", "O Sing to the Lord", "Let Us Break Bread Together" and "Song of Hope" and readings from the Bible, everyone was ready for the Word. After a reading from the Mission Book for The day, “God has also called Washington Presbytery to reach out beyond its bounds in response to Hurricane Katrina. Since August 2005, the presbytery has hosted eight mission trips to the Gautier, Mississippi, area. Washington Presbytery has sent truckloads of supplies, held a teddy bear drive at Christmastime through a local hospital, and collected money for mattresses for people who lost everything. The biggest project of the year was adopting nine families from Mississippi and asking churches in the presbytery to develop an ongoing, caring relationship with them and to help them meet their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. This project has been enthusiastically supported, and Washington Presbyterians have benefited as much as those affected by Hurricane Katrina. God’s people are doing a large part of the rebuilding work after this disaster, and the presbytery is deeply blessed that God has called it to be involved with the people of Mississippi as they rebuild their homes and their lives,” the Word was seen in a slide show of the week’s activities. Communion was then shared along with hugs for the Peace. Everyone left feeling together and ready to return home.

Hellos and Goodbyes...

Its our last day here in Mississippi. We thought it would be nice to show you who we are and say hello before we say goodbye.

We'll be returning to New York tonight but will continue this blog with post-trip thoughts and reflections. Remember all the times we said, "More later.."? Well, we'll also be adding new content to previous posts. So, we hope you'll continue reading and continue sharing.

When you see us back in the city and in church, feel free to say hi.

NYC Presbytery Gulfport Katrina Mission Trip

Front row:
Rose, David, Kate, Betty, Eleanor, Janet
Second row: Randye, Sorrel Ann, Arabella, Barbara, Agnes, Rita, Lisa, Jill
Third row: Bob, Tina, Andy, Kathy, Oddrun, Carol, Craig

Friday, January 19, 2007

It's quiet.

Based on the blog posts so far, you'd think Friday was a quiet day. You'd be wrong. Most of us wrapped up the projects that faced us for the week -- or at least found a good stopping point so that others could continue our work later. We also faced a number of farewells to our friends from Minnesota and Kansas City, not to mention the on-site staff and long-term volunteers with whom we have worked all week. It is hard to believe that the week is now over! We ended the day with a wonderful party hosted at the home of a friend of one of our group members. It was the perfect way to enjoy some southern hospitality and celebrate the good work we have done. More will be forthcoming about the day soon.

Saturday holds our final preparations to return home. We are scheduled to depart the church at 11:30 A.M. (Central), fly out of Gulfport at 1:55 P.M., and land at LaGuardia around 7:00 P.M. Do keep our travels in your prayers!

Day Seven: Site Work

Our last full day of work here. It's raining.