Students break for Mississippi

“Pass Christian, Miss. – On Aug. 29, the small gulf coastal city of Pass Christian, Miss., was washed away. Seemingly erased from existence by flooding and winds of over 160 mph, residents of Pass Christian were left with nothing. Houses were leveled and people were killed.”

Pass Christian, Miss. – On Aug. 29, the small gulf coastal city of Pass Christian, Miss., was washed away.

Seemingly erased from existence by flooding and winds of over 160 mph, residents of Pass Christian were left with nothing. Houses were leveled and people were killed. Everything changed. Since then, the lives of those impacted by the storm have been dedicated to rebuilding their homes.

For one week, 152 students from Campus Focus, a college group affiliated with the Chapel, were a part of that effort. I had the honor of joining them as they worked to help restore the Southern city. This is my journal.

Sunday, March 26
After a reflective walk with a few close friends through the semi-abandoned neighborhood where we’ve staked camp, it’s become clear to me. The damage inflicted by Hurricane Katrina last August is bigger than any individual effort, corporate donation or church group mission trip can repair. The excitement of the two-day trip to Pass Christian, Miss., was subdued by the startling reality. No video, photograph or news story could have prepared us for the devastation witnessed.

We pulled in at dusk. Dead flood-damaged trees stood as silhouettes as the sun set in the horizon. Not much else still stands along the beachfront. The ghostly skeleton-like frames of what used to be hotels, shopping centers and homes now haunt the Gulf.

Seven full months after Katrina struck, I didn’t know it would be this bad. We’re not sure what kind of work we’re going to be doing this week. Everyone seems anxious to find out how we’ll help. After what I saw today, I’m nervous to see if we’ll truly be able to.

Monday, March 27
I met Sam today. A typical looking 13-year-old boy, Sam speaks with a maturity that escapes most my age. The boy has so many stories to tell – like the one about his friend who was washed out into the ocean during the storm, but miraculously made it back alive. The same couldn’t be said for the mother of a man Sam recently met. The man said he found his mother in a pile of debris when he returned home after the storm.

Sam has seen and heard things that have the power to turn the bravest of men cold and distant. Since the storm, Sam has taken a break from school and a break from being a kid. Instead he volunteers and works wherever he can. That’s why he’s on my roofing crew.

This morning, the 152 students who made the trip were divided into work groups by the local church that we’ve partnered with. My group has been assigned the duty of laying shingles for Bobbi, a woman in her 50s suffering from terminal cancer. When our team arrived, she broke into tears and told us her story.

Her gratefulness makes hauling 75-pound bags of shingles up a ladder worth it.

Tuesday, March 28
There are bugs everywhere. They are a byproduct of the storm. It seems every person on the trip wakes up each morning with at least 10 new bites. It’s a minor hassle compared to some of the stories that are starting to come in from the work groups. While my team finished most of Bobbi’s roof today, another team diligently hung drywall for a man named Bubba.

Bubba’s two-story house was submerged in 16 feet of water when the storm hit. He is a licensed electrician who owns his own company. He’s spent most of his time since the storm offering his services free to other victims. That’s been the trend I’ve noticed.

Since Katrina hit, people have banded together in a way that seems to put the individual last. Sam said it best when he told me he doesn’t deserve any praise for the work he’s done. He’s simply satisfying his duty as a resident of Pass Christian.

I expected there to be selfish disarray when I arrived here. It’s quite the opposite. I’ve never seen such selflessness.

Wednesday, March 29
We finished Bobbi’s roof today. Later, she prepared the best meal I’ve ever had. There were platters of ribs, barbecue chicken, corn on the cob, baked beans, a few different kinds of rolls and several desserts. Katrina may have destroyed much of the South, but believe me, Southern hospitality has not wavered.

Today was the last day Sam would be working with us. Before we said our goodbyes, we discussed the possibility of me coming back in the summer and living with his family. Four days of work seems so petty when you look around and see decades of rebuilding. My Spring Break trip is Sam’s reality.

Sometimes when I look up and see him strapped to a rope on the steep roof, hammering nails while lying in the sweltering sun, I wonder what his life was like before the storm. Did he spend time building forts instead of building homes?

When Katrina hit, every aspect of its victims’ lives was forever changed. Can I even imagine having my entire life put on hold? I’m not sure if I would have been as receptive as Sam.

Thursday, March 30
My roofing crew woke up on our final day to find we had been assigned a second roof. We managed to finish 80 percent of the roof before packing up. As a devastated Mississippi faded in our rear view mirror, the images and stories remain fresh.

I’ll never forget the tears that streamed down Bobbi’s cheeks when we arrived to fix her roof. Just like others on the trip will never forget the look on the face of a local man named Ernie when they offered to help clean out and gut his house.

Others will cling to the image of a teddy bear, caked in mud and left childless on the ground.

Even more will recall the images of insurmountable destruction like the house that somehow floated off its foundation and came to rest on top of a car or the Wal-Mart that was hollowed out by Katrina’s fierce winds and flooding.

More than anything, I will hold onto the spirit conveyed by the victims. Their entire lives were washed away in a storm. Instead of complaining about the loss of their community, most are rejoicing in the opportunity to rebuild a better one. Some even say Katrina was a blessing to them.

It has reminded them what really matters in life and it has created a better world for them to live in.

I’m thankful for the opportunity to have been a part of it.