Proper 9, Year B, RCL
2 Corinthians 12:2-10
The journey began with a small carload of 4 people and all of their stuff – sleeping bags, work clothes, bug spray, a deck of cards, cameras. The destination: a gathering point with a larger group of people who would fill up 4 larger vans with more of the same, as well as music, work gloves, sunglasses, snacks, and open hands, and open hearts to the needs of people still putting their lives back together 4 years after a hurricane of unfathomable power and destruction turned their lives upside down.
The place we stayed, the things we saw, the stories we heard and the people we served – each of these aspects of the Senior High Youth Mission Trip played a significant role in the experience we shared in together. It was the backdrop to the prophetic voices that spoke to us as individuals and as a group who travelled to Bay St. Louis, Mississippi in hopes of seeing and serving Christ.
Bay St. Louis is a town that has seen and survived hurricanes and tough weather before – but the winds and waters that struck the area in August of 2005 were overwhelming. At its height, the waters that flooded and washed away Christ Episcopal Church, all but its bell tower, were 32 feet high. Mission on the Bay is a ministry of the Lutheran Episcopal Services of Mississippi, and the host site for over 8000 volunteers who have come to serve the needs of the Gulf Coast in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. It resides on the property of Christ Episcopal Church and faces Mississippi Bay, an inlet of the Gulf of Mexico.
Our housing, meals, tools, and worship space were provided on this property because where there was once a church, there would continue to be a place of ministry. The community of Christ Episcopal, under the leadership of an amazing rector, one who had agreed to serve the congregation just weeks before the flood waters came, discovered a new call to be a center of hospitality and serving the needs of others and the community. As the flood waters receded, the vision of a housing and volunteer deployment center came into reality.
Joined by youth from North Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia, and Florida, our group of 130 youth volunteers and their leaders descended upon this place and allowed ourselves, not only to be put to work, but to be witnesses to the members of the community whose homes we worked on, whose stories we heard, whose project organizers we worked alongside, whose musicians and storytellers we listened too.
As I’ve weighed the experiences of our week in Mississippi alongside the Gospel for today, I see a series of connections and contrasts. The first is the fact that rather than wait for a prophet to come to us, and share their story, we went into the world, into this new and foreign place, to learn from those living in this strange and difficult reality. We went to serve, but we also went to listen and to learn from those who are surviving, those who are rebuilding and those who are struggling and succeeding in creating their communities once again. We went to the hometown of the prophets in order to be preached to, in order to be taught the lessons of God’s presence, even in the midst of destruction, grief, loss, and seemingly insurmountable difficulties.
What we found there were others who have given their life in service to the people and the community of Bay St. Louis; people who have committed their expertise, time and talent to help rebuild this community. Mission on the Bay hosts, trains, and sends volunteers who come from near and far to be witnesses and active helpers in the face of the needs that are still there. It is also a place where prophets who have seen the harsh realities and experienced the faithful commitment of God’s love even in the darkest hours are willing and able to share their story – over a shrimp boil, or a hammer and a nail. Prophets speak the truth, despite the discomfort it may cause, despite the sadness it displays, these prophets are gifts to us, and gifts to the church.
There were other contrasts between Jesus’ sending words to his disciples and our experience as mission-ers.
Take nothing with you, only the clothes on your back, and staff that may serve to protect you from wild animals. Remain in the first home that invites you in, so that you will not be tempted to seek a better arrangement or finer accommodations as you learn the lay of the land. Share the faithful story of which you are a part, that Good News has come in Christ, and do not allow those who would dismiss you to discourage or keep you from the next leg of your journey.
What we learned from our prophetic hosts, what we heard again and again, and what was hard to imagine or understand was that we brought something with us that none of us could have imagined or assumed. Yes, we came to serve, yes, we came to build roofs, to tile floors, to hang drywall, to do yard work, to pick up trash to clean up items still untouched after 4 years, to give our time and our sweat so that some things that could not and would not be afforded, or attended to, could be taken care of. We brought many things with us, but the most important thing that came with each of our shining faces was the gift of hope.
Time and again, homeowners, residents, store clerks, and others told us that even the smallest act of being present and being willing to serve was an empowering reminder that the people of the Gulf Coast are not forgotten, and they are not alone. We came to hear the voice of God in the words spoken by these hometown prophets, and the word that they had for us was the fact that we brought with us a gift we could not have imagined.
I struggled the most with this truth on the day that our work groups had the unexpected opportunity to travel into New Orleans and receive a tour of the 9th Ward, a district that was severely flooded, severely damaged, and felt the pains of abandonment. As we gathered in the parking lot of a building that was once a Walgreens, and now serves as a community center and Episcopal Church, we were called to prayer through song.
“Joyful, joyful Lord we adore thee, God of glory, Lord of love” the words reverberated around us, and the call to see our surroundings with eyes of hope in healing and resurrection was placed upon us. This was not an easy task, but it was work that was given to us to do. As we moved through the neighborhood we saw re-built homes standing next to empty lots where only the foundation of a building remained, in some cases, just a brick outline or a cement slab. Some houses were marked with spray paint from those who searched for survivors, and the dead. Some were marked with the words: Do not Bulldoze. “Melt the clouds of sin and sadness, drive the dark of doubt away.”
The prophets of Bay St. Louis and the 9th Ward have lived this reality, have walked far more than a mile in these shoes – having only the clothes on their back and if they were lucky, the companionship of their family member at their side. And as they have made their way back, as they have made a commitment to become a community once again, they have called others to see, and to hear and to participate in that work – allowing us to bring hope for the future, hope for healing, hope for the attention and care of their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, and in community, that their homes may one day be rebuilt and their community thrive again.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina new pathways to God’s prophetic witness to his people were created. This is not to say that it is God’s will that so many should suffer in order for us to better know God’s love in the world. But these communities could have died. They could have been left as ashes and abandoned by their people. And they have chosen a path of resurrection. They have chosen to seek a new way, even though they are forever changed. They have chosen to speak their truth, to share that truth with us, and to invite us to return again and again to participate in the new life that comes after the storms have stilled.
As we say prayers and give offerings to the ongoing ministry of the Gulf Coast resources, as we send members of our community to fulfill this call to mission and ministry, and as we welcome back the prophetic witness that has been seen and heard in these places, remember our work as people of hope, and as receivers of the word and as agents of healing not only in what we do for others but in our way of being for and with others. In the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, our companion on all paths of the journey. Amen.
Delivered: July 5, 2009