Friday, October 17, 2008

So God is like mud ....

It's our last day here in Dulac, and I'm not quite ready to leave. We've got half a day of work left to do on Glenda's home, and then we're off to New Orleans, a city I've never visited. I've heard all kinds of crazy things about that place, which was so devastated by Katrina three years ago. I hope it lives up to expectations!

Yesterday was such a productive day. We keep beginning earlier and earlier - hence my decision to just post pictures yesterday rather than try and make a coherent sentence at 7:15 in the morning! The team went again to Glenda's house to finish dry wall, mud the walls (which i now understand is the correct term for putting up joint compound), and start the flooring. We're putting down luan over the sub-floor of the trailer so that Glenda and her family can have hard wood floors in their home. I'm thankful to be gaining all of these new skills - i can now measure and cut for drywall, put it up, and then mud over it to make a wall. The members of the VIM team who've done this type of work before are really excellent teachers, so I'm confident I'll be able to use these skills on my own home some day. 

All the progress in the house means that we're one step closer to leaving. We're worn out - I can see it in the faces of the others, I see it in my own face when I look in the mirror. Not many of us are used to being on our feet for so long during the day, or if we are, we're certainly not this active. I feel like I've been doing Walk-in Mission every day all day for a week - it's exhausting! Although we're tired, I get the sense that folks here would love to stay and see our pet projects until the end. I would love to be present when Glenda's grandchildren (the five that live with her: Debo, DeNisha, Jordan, Roger, and the other I can't recall) see their new house, the place where they'll sleep and eat and play and grow. I would love to hammer in that last nail, put that last floorboard in place, paint that last stroke - whatever it takes to bring Glenda home. Phyllis, the site coordinator who's been working with us this week, promises us that she'll send a team back on Monday to continue the work that we've done, but selfishly, I wish it was our team that could do it. 

At devotions this evening, I led the group in some reflection time. Where have we seen God this week? What will we take with us back to Washington DC? How will this journey change us? While each person's answer was compelling, it was Jim's that struck me the most. "I think I've seen God in the mud this week." He meant, I think, that just as we see bayou mud from the hurricane all around us, everywhere we go, really, God is all around us, too. I don't mean to suggest that the presence of this mud is a blessing in Dulac - it's not. But it serves for me as a visible reminder of something I'm prone to forget - that even when I forget to look, even when I'm not paying attention, God is staring me in the face. God's love is all around us - we're surrounded by it. God's love sticks to us like the mud - and just like the mud, it's hard to shake off, and in Dulac, impossible to escape.

Although I'm sad we leave today, I'm comforted to know that the love of God will continue to surround these people that we've come to care about so very much. May we all keep this love at the forefront of our minds - and may we not need bayou mud to remind us how precious we are to the One.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Dulac in pictures

Here it is! The Dulac Community Center of the United Methodist Church. The building on the far left with the tarp houses the clothing rooms, library, and some storage facilities that were all flooded during Ike. The middle building is the gymnasium that's currently a distribution center. The right building are the administration offices, classrooms, and kitchen. Behind the last building is the guest house, where we're staying.
Here we are at the Dulac Community Center! This sign is on the front of the community center's main building, which for now is acting as a warehouse until its back rooms are repaired.
Muddy boots left over from the volunteers last week. They were mainly responsible for mucking out houses. We've been fortunate so far to not have this as a task!Here's the mud I was talking about. It's five inches thick in some places, is black, and won't go away unless hauled out with a shovel and/or power washer.We're joined on our VIM journey by two other teams, one from Ardmore, Oklahoma, and another from Yukon, Oklahoma.The new mural that they'd just had painted in the library a month before Ike hit and destroyed everything. Doris was so proud of this!The water line reached 5 feet in the community center. Here's evidence of the flood, marked in grass debris, on the door leading outside.
The gang, minus me (photographer) and the Broadwaters, at Schmoopy's, our favorite restaurant in Dulac!Here's a before picture of the house we demolished in our first two days.Lots of wires to be trimed, wall board to be torn down, before we could get the roof off the house. Bobbi is taking care of these tasks!The roof had five layers of shingles. Here's Brenda peeling one away.Team leader Ken from Foundry and John from Yukon supervise the tear-down of the left part of the house.

I got tired of posting these one by one, so check out the rest of what I have taken so far at:

More gravel!

This morning I continued shoveling gravel outside the community center. The parking lot was full of water pockets so we moved the gravel from three big piles into the low spots around the area. The hot sun sure does not help when you are moving heavy gravel. After while, Chris the local guy in charge of the gravel move, remembered that his friend had a large tractor that could move these rocks more efficiently. He called him up and the friend said that he would bring the tractor over soon. Thus, I did not have to spread any more gravel in the hot sun.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Create anyway

This one will have to be quick, since we're getting up progressively earlier and earlier. I can't handle this 8 am in the morning start stuff. Lucky for those of you who have begun to tire of my long posts.

It's been raining a lot the past few days. Monday night we lost power for 4 hours and ate in the dark. Yesterday it started raining at 5 and didn't really stop until early this morning. I fell asleep listening to the rain on the tin roof of the guest house.

I'm frustrated by this rain. Maybe it's because I'm not at home, under a blanket, snuggled up with a book - which is the only way I like rain. Maybe it's because it forces us inside and unexpectedly halts our work. Maybe it's because this rain flooded the community center on Monday evening, and Jane Northern and I spent all of the morning yesterday throwing away the wet clothes - donated by the Mormons - that were stored on the floor. Maybe it's becuase this rain reminds me of the flood and the hurricane that got Dulac in this mess in the first place.

It's on my mind much this week that as we participate in this recovery work, we're only putting a band-aid on larger problems - ineffective levy systems, broken government systems, hunger, poverty, and the list goes on. I worry that once we leave here, the good work we're doing will be undone by those powerful forces, and then what will be the point? All the blood and sweat for what?

And as God often does with me - it's something we do, me and God - I was gently reminded in a poem Bill shared with us for devotion. The line that struck me reads: "What you spend years creating, others could destroy overnight. Create anyway." Create anyway. Even though you're frustrated, I'm being told, do my work anyway. It's what I've called you here to do. Although a storm may come and tear down all you've done, these are your brothers and sisters. Do what is right by them, with them. Stand with them in solidarity. Build friendships with them as you laugh about boyfriends and children, parents, and heartache. Smile as you meet their grandchildren, giggle as you play with their new puppies. Make their homes liveable, their lives more joyous, even if only for a little while. These are the things that no hurricane can destroy. These are the things worth creating.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Caked, baked and more rain!

The mud is everywhere. Outside the Dulac Community Center the mud is about 3 inches thick. Right after the hurricane Ike, Jame who is the director of the Dulac Community Center, cleaned out the gym all by herself because she hoped that relief supplies would be on the way. The community center is a local distribution site for such help.

Yesterday with lots of supplies inside, it rained and flooded the floor of the community center. Clothes got wet that were to be distributed to needy individuals. Katy Wheat and Jane Northern cleaned up what they could and sorted more clothes into piles.
It is raining right now so I hope the community center doesn't flood again.

Here are a few pictures so you can see the mud and the rain.

A thousand invisible threads

We began work yesterday, albeit quite slowly. Speaking with my friend Stephanie on the phone yesterday, she remarked "But you're not expecting anything to be fast anymore, are you? I'm sure you've noticed by now that things in Louisiana go at their own pace." How true those words rang yesterday as we waited around for Darryl, the site coordinator, to give us a task. We just wanted something to do. Armed with knee pads and protective eye wear, sunscreen and deep woods bug spray, we sat around enjoying the morning breeze, but altogether without a job to do. Some of us wandered away to work in the warehouse unloading relief supplies for folks in the community who come daily to pick up the bottled water, ice, gallons of bleach, diapers for their children. Others (ehem, me), went to exercise their talents and clean up the common room some more.

Finally, a job! We were sent to tear down a shed just five houses down the road. Wait, already gone. Well ... "I guess you can go into Grand Caillou and work with that other team from Oklahoma that's tearing down that house," said Darryl. So we hopped in our cars and headed 12 miles down the road to a community of mobile homes. "This looks much different from Dulac," one of our team remarked. And it did - driving into this neighborhood, we saw intact siding, no piles of rubbish on the side of the road, no signs that said "FEMA, buy us out." But as we traveled further into the neighborhood, we were able to see why we'd been sent. A tan home, set on three rows of cinder blocks, was in the process of being torn down by the team from Yukon, Oklahoma. Yellow spray paint marked the side - "NO TRESPASSING." Not wanting to invade any one's demolition territory, but wanting to help, I cautiously climbed the ladder to the roof and began to tear off one of the five layers of shingles the house had. It was soon obvious that even before the hurricanes, these folks were in dire straights. Holes in the rotting plywood covered the front part of the roof. The back was simply insulated and covered over with sealed tin sheeting.

It took us most of the day to get the house down, but down it came. Folks worked tirelessly - carrying debris to the trash heap, sawing away at support beams. First the left side of the roof, then the right. We were mostly finished when the rain came pouring down and forced us to find shelter.

"We cannot live for ourselves alone. Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results." Ah, Herman Melville, you wise man. I thought of the inter-connectivity of all God's children frequently yesterday. By the end of the day, I had never been so thankful to have a place to stay, to have assurance that I'll have a roof over my head every night. And a roof that doesn't leak, to boot. And it makes me think that, as DOrothy Day pointed out, as long as there are folks living in poverty, as long as there are folks with roofs that leak, as long as there are children with hungry bellies, we are all of us never really rich, or housed, or full. We are connected, all of us God's children, all one body, connected by invisible threads that should make it impossible for some to thrive while others suffer. I can only hope that when this recovery finishes on Friday, those of us working here will bring home a raging fire of passion for justice, desirious to work together to bring about the kind of world where everyone has a safe home and food to eat.

The owners of the house watched us tear down their home yesterday. The woman of the couple was summoned by neighbors who told her "the angels are here." She stood under the shade of the grand old tree in front of her home and spoke with LeEtta, Joanne, and Carolinda, chatted away for half an hour and watched as we destroyed her home. She was looking forward, they told us later. Gustav badly damaged the home, and it was damaged further by Ike, by the water that came into the community in waves. Having reported the Gustav damage to FEMA, they wouldn't let her 'double dip' and get extra money from Ike damages, too. Still, the FEMA money was enough that they were able to take some out of savings and buy a new home, which will arrive on Thursday. They are looking forward with hope.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Look the part

"I thought, do they want me to look the part, or do they want me to be the part?" Pastor Kirby of Clanton Chapel UMC spoke about Matthew 22:1-14 yesterday morning - the Parable of the Wedding Banquet. He reflected on his time as an insurance agent in the 1970's, and how he was told at the outset of his employment that he was required to 'look the part.' But what use is looking the part if you're not actually qualified to be the part? What good does it do to show the world a person that doesn't really exist?

I reflected on this all day yesterday as we went about celebrating the sabbath. We enjoyed the Voices of the Wetlands festival at nearby Southdown Plantation and ate delicious alligator sauce piquant, jambalaya, and shrimp etouffee, washed it down with Dr. Pepper, and feasted on home-made pecan pie and red velvet cake for desert (is your mouth watering yet?) We rearranged the common room of the guest house where we're staying. The hurricane washed away the extra guest trailers, so when a youth group of 50 stayed here last week, many of the youth had to sleep on cots in the common area; it was a mess, as a result. Then it was time to eat again.

Why do humans feel the need to put up a facade? To show other only what they want to see? We make all kinds of fuss over looking the part, but often neglect to cultivate the life that should go along with it.

God calls us to something more: to not only talk the talk, but also to walk the walk. As Christians, as those who profess a love for Jesus Christ, we are called to witness and testimony - and this may be done with our words, our songs, and our sermons. But I often find myself forgetful that there's more than talking like a Christian. I am thankful of the words of St. Francis of Assisi in these moments: "Preach the Gospel at all times," he says. "If necessary, use words." We are called as followers of Christ to truly follow Christ - to walk with God as God walks with us. To live our lives with the full knowledge that we might be the only Gospel that others every read.

How is this done? With acts of kindness, to be sure. In caring for one another, to be sure. In standing in solidarity with our brothers and sisters through this difficult time, most certainly. I am certain that we walk with God this week, as we begin the long process of recovery here in Dulac. Works of mercy are necessary - to meet the immediate needs of our brothers and sisters is an essential business. But to truly become the part, to truly preach the Gospel, it is necessary to work towards the Kingdom of God in other ways. We as a church, as a people of God, as a nation, must strive towards justice. Justice for the Houma people here in Dulac means recognition as a Nation. That they might have as a right, access to medical care and proper education for their children, protection and care of their elders, the ability to govern themselves, the ownership of their land. Justice for the people of Dulac means that when the next hurricane hits the bayou, as it will, people have safe homes, high in the sky and floating like little islands amid the flood waters. If we are truly to be a people of God, committed to the Good News of Jesus Christ, we must walk towards justice and in solidarity. We must be the part.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Amid devastation, hope.

So we're here! Our group arrived yesterday afternoon in New Orleans, Louisiana, to blue skies and a refreshing breeze. I've never been this far south. It's gorgeous country; lots of trees, very swampy, everything covered in Spanish moss. It was an hour drive from the rental car station into Houma, most of which I slept through. Traveling early in the morning doesn't work well for me!

I awoke as we were driving into Houma, because we got lost looking for the Wal-Mart (or any store that sold drinkable water. It's still not safe here). It seems most of the road signs (if there ever were any), have been blown away by the hurricanes. Evidence of devastation is everywhere in Houma. Winding our way through this small city, trying to pick out our way to Dulac, we saw piles of debris and personal belongings by the road side. Homes, a month after Ike, without roofs, walls, windows. Trailers abandoned, condemned. Grass from the bayou in great piles like mountains - signs of the months, maybe years, of recovery work ahead.

Houma, a city of about 30,000, is 40 minutes from where we are staying in Dulac. It's a small (and I mean small) town right on the bayou, home to 3,000 people. It's been harder hit by Gustav and Ike than Houma was. Dulac weathered Katrina and Rita pretty well, Doris (the mother of the community center's director, Jamie), tells me. Evacuated from their homes, and hearing of the devastation elsewhere in the state, they expected the worst, but arrived home in 2005 to find only mud and a few feet of water in their homes. Still, it's damage that's taken years to repair. Most folks in Dulac have raised their houses as a result of the hurricanes of 2005; they sit, like Great Egrets of the bayou, perched on 9-foot stilts. Folks here weren't so lucky during 2008's round of hurricanes. The Dulacians, as they call themselves, were evacuated in late August for Gustav. Many fled into Mississippi and upper Louisiana to escape the storm many predicted would wipe their town off the US map. Yet Gustav, which made landfall just 15 miles from Dulac, was kind to this place - as kind as a hurricane can be, I suppose. Hitting on September 1st, Gustav felled trees, blew power lines, ripped off the community center's roof, and spread mud and several feet of water from the bayou into its gymnasium. Damage, but damage that could be repaired once the flood waters receded with some elbow grease and a good power washer. Ike, which hit less than two weeks later, was less forgiving. It put the entire town of Dulac under 5 to 6 feet of water. The newly built guest quarters of the community center, where our group is staying, was untouched, as it had been constructed on the requisite stilts. But the community center, a vital part of this nation, was flooded, and much of its contents destroyed.

Doris showed me around yesterday. She's worked here long before her daughter became director of the center, she tells me. Her clothing room, of which she was so proud, and which served the residents of Dulac so faithfully, is gone, gutted, with a lone clothing rack waiting in the middle of the room to be filled once more. The library, the storage rooms (which held construction materials for home improvements in the community), the offices, all ruined. There's still a water line visible on the walls, as tall as I am. The gymnasium is full of relief supplies - cans of water, blankets, food - and will have to wait awhile before it sees children on its basketball courts again. And the mud. All around us is the mud. It covered everything, Doris says, three inches thick, stinking, rotting mud. It took days to power wash it away. There are still thick, wet blocks of it under the guest center.

Yet amid all this devastation, we see hope that things in Dulac will turn around, that this vibrant community full of interesting characters will thrive once more. Although there are piles of ruined materials all around the community center, the employees and volunteers that stay here were able to salvage building materials, new appliances, and even a toilet and two sinks. There are three Volunteers in Mission teams in the community center right now - the team from Foundry, and two teams from Oklahoma. Most importantly, the residents are committed to recovery. Recovery of their homes, their community, and recovery of a way of life that they love so very much.

I'm off across the street now, to the Clanton Chapel United Methodist Church on the center's property. More to come later.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Preparing for the journey

As we leave in two days, I cannot help but wonder what Dulac will look like, what we will find when we arrive. Here are some useful links that those of us on the VIM team have been passing around about where we'll be going. They help me to visualize, ever so slightly, what we'll see once we're on the bayou.

This website displays postings from the Dulac Community Center's Director, Jamie Billiot. Read her thoughts about the evacuations and flooding from Gustav and Ike:

Here's the website for the United Houma Nation, the Native American people that populates much of Dulac and Houma. Especially interesting are the sideshows of the area right after Hurricanes Gustav and Ike. You'll find that link on the right hand side under 'Hot Topics.' Click on the link for either Gustav or Ike.

More once we're there.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

An update from Betty Lundy

For those former VIM team members following our blog, please see below an update written by Bobbie Hodges, daughter of Eleanor McClean, who recently visited the home of Betty Lundy. The VIM team that visited New Orleans in 2006 worked on Ms. Lundy's home. They installed insulation and over 100 sheets of fresh drywall in her house.

Bobbie says ...

I just got home from New Orleans and wanted to give you an update on Betty Lundy. Feel free to forward this to others who worked on her house. My parents and I visited Betty on Tuesday afternoon. The house is completely fixed up on both sides now and looks beautiful. She has a rose bush planted out front. Her daughter is living in the left side of the house as you look at it, where we did drywall. Betty lives in the right side, where we did insulation. She moved back into the house in the fall of 2007. She had let her niece's family move into the little rental house she lived in when we were there, so she was living in the FEMA trailer for several months before her house was finished. She is happy to be taking in foster children again, and has a nice room fixed up for them. She had a four-year-old girl who had just left to live with grandparents when we visited. She said they have a good foster parent support group that meets in a church and some CASA volunteers, but a lot more help is needed in child advocacy work. She had knee replacement surgery about a year ago and is still doing therapy and trying to get completely healed. Many other houses in the neighborhood are already fixed up and a few are still in progress. I think only two had to be torn down. A new church has just been built diagonally across the street from Betty's house. She was planning to go to the dedication ceremony the evening that we were there. Betty was excited to have a visit from us, and would love to have news and pictures from anyone on the work team. She still gives great hugs, and sent one to everyone else on the VIM team!

Bobbie Hodges