Thirteen lucky (blessed) adults and youth from our church recently helped gut flooded houses in New Orleans, in St. Bernard Parish. Even after a week of being in the midst of the destruction Katrina caused, it is still hard to fathom or communicate its breadth, depth and implications.
The impact of this Monster was seen from over 75 miles away in the bent and broken trees, and unused FEMA trailers – thousands sitting on a hillside, waiting. Getting closer, the wind’s damage was heavily supplemented by water’s power: a Hurricane’s driving rain, a behemoth storm surge and floods from broken levies.
A region far greater than the Tri-Cities area has been more than scarred. Rich and poor, black and white, owners, renters, insured and noninsured were equally hammered and made destitute by Katrina, and her slightly less ugly and equally unwelcome sister Rita. This is not to mention Mississippi and Alabama’s woes.
Even for the majority who did evacuate and those who had insurance, and alternative places to live, work, educate their children and live life, most of them are not able to go home and get on with life. More than just out of pocket, the entire fabric of their life has been ripped apart, believer and unbeliever alike.
The people we were honored to help were homeowners who had lived in their nice, middle-income brick houses for 40 plus years. From these solid homes, they raised and sent off kids and received back grandchildren. Their stores, schools, churches, family and social networks had been there, but are no longer.
Huge curbside piles of trash are now among the few signs of life and hope. Those fortunate enough to get help rehabbing – if the structure can be saved - are faced first with the task of breaking into their homes; doors are often blocked with debris.
Access gained, they must now throw away almost all of their ruined worldly goods, and then strip their former home’s walls to the maybe moldy studs - nasty, slow, dangerous toil.
Simply getting into a house or a room may mean crawling over a floated, now flipped over sofa, walking over mattresses that meandered to the living room beside a dryer. It means encountering refrigerators – filled with rotted food – lying over in the trashed kitchen. Do not ask about the smells or rats.
Those press-board computer desks we have? Water is not kind to them. When the water recedes, to the floor they proceed, sinking into half-dried oil spilled from a local refinery. Monitors, keyboards, files, games and speakers make an interesting puzzle – all a tangled mess to be thrown curbside.
There are many things I learned from this exhausting, invigorating, faith-building trip. Allow me to share a few. First, it was easy after watching the coverage of Katrina – and probably racist - to blame "those people" for not getting out, for living there in the first place.
Until going and seeing the pervasive, equal-opportunity destroyer Katrina was, it was easy to smugly ask why they did not have insurance, don’t just move on, get busy rebuilding… Shame on me, Lord. Forgive my self-righteousness.
Seeing ruined family photos hurt. Throwing away now worthless treasures was a valuable reminder of what really matters most in life. Seeing how much stuff we can accumulate was impossible to ignore.
I doubt I’ll ever forget seeing a discarded plaque for Homecoming Queen – an honor that once shaped a life - now headed to the dump, along with a dozen more trophies and awards.
It was satisfying to rescue a remembrance and return it to the homeowner: medals, baby pictures, $650 cash. It was amazing to see how they had learned a lesson we had not. Often what we were certain they would want to keep, they no longer saw as valuable – it had become stuff.
A story we heard that grabbed my imagination was of brave heroics and incredible ingratitude. A man used his boat, at risk to his own safety, to rescue some people in peril. Bringing them to his own home, which was remarkably habitable, he let them stay with him.
As is cynically said, no good deed goes unpunished. The next day, the people he helped were gone. With them, were many of his valuables. The rescuer took his gun, found them and got his stuff back.
While this story appalls, it rebukes more loudly. How many times have I treated God, my gracious Rescuer who offers me His home with such disdain? He left heaven’s perfections to wade into wild waters to save me from me and how do we often say thanks (John 1:11-13).
Like the homeowner, for those who do not receive the rescue, the Savior will someday take on a Judge’s role and mete out justice. And, for us spoiled kids of the kingdom who often forget Whom to thank, we can expect a spanking.
Ever the pastor, allow me to share one lasting parable we experienced. Sin, like Katrina, has tumbled our innards too, wrecking our heart-homes. Its mess in our lives is worse than those devastated domiciles.
The cleanup process that is needed is no small job, requiring outside Help. The task will not be complete unless full access is given and former valuables gotten rid of or reassessed. If there is any consolation, each of us have messy, ransacked rooms inside. There is no sense acting otherwise.
Some final exhortations: Pray for those hundreds of thousands still feeling Katrina’s slap. If you can go and help, I urge you to go. If not, give and support those who can go. We hope to go back. The need will there for years.
Repent of any ignorant, sinful condemning of those displaced or overwhelmed by natural disasters. If we do not believe that could be us, God help us. Oh the pride that divides and damns.
Finally, let Jesus clean your mucked up life. Yes, call out for salvation if you have not. But, frankly, I am speaking to us believers who are still full of putrid, ravished, ruined stuff. Some are of our own doing, others the results of others’ destructive influences.
Guard your garbage and you will stay a mess. Let Him haul out what He will and He can rebuild (see Romans 8).