Lent: Experiencing God’s Grace in Mississippi
Scripture begs to be preached: Called into the world to serve others, the voice behind the pulpit invited anyone interested in traveling to Mississippi to help restore homes destroyed by Hurricane Katrina to see her. Five folks and their pastor, enthusiastic about planning for the Mission gathered together to work out travel dates. The Mission would begin following the Ash Wednesday worship service. What talents do we have? What talents do we need? We can pray – for the folks we will serve, for our team, and for the resources to travel. Flexibility is the key to team formation. Inviting others into the experience is the key to God’s calling upon others to join the group.
Three folks and the pastor from Newbegun UMC, one from Pilmoor UMC and two folks from Hertford UMC meet at Captain Bob’s to begin our Lenten journey in two vehicles, on the road, through the night, to Biloxi, Mississippi. Who could imagine the energy and enthusiasm that seemed to blanket the travelers as the sun began to shine? Who could imagine, that first afternoon, what would begin with a couple of hours of electrical work and putting together the fans to be installed would enable seven folks to develop into a well-placed team, serving in unity the God whose Spirit brought them together?
“Be careful what you pray for” is usually an admonition to warn us if we pray big, we might have to be big and do big things. Our prayers were simply for faithfulness in our service. God enabled us to become a faithful team. God enabled us to be big and do big things – way beyond what some of us thought we could do.
First day: “Let’s be honest – we came to work – not to tour. We’ve got some things we can do without getting in the way of the other team.” Split up – some go to work on a house; some go to work at the grocery store. Some go to meet the Spillers family whose house begs for roofing. An opportunity to listen to the story of a family who left and returned. A family who steadfastly wants to rebuild rather than build new. A family that has been embedded in the fabric of the neighborhood around St. Paul’s UMC since the 1940’s. Faithful members of St. Paul’s, this family holds hope near.
Second day: “Rain likely on Sunday and Monday. Let’s do the roof while the sun shines and work inside when it rains.” Tin roofing must be removed; horizontal slats must be lifted up. New wood must be used to strengthen old rafters. Not a 90 degree angle in sight. Roof dips; new beam – an 18 footer – needs to be made and installed with specific angles to set it into the joists. Roof comes off, beam is made and hoisted up, perfectly fitting. At the end of the day, new roof decking is nearly complete. More than one of us is hesitant to climb the ladder to the roof; fears of height released by the Spirit brought six to the roof.
Third day: Devotional time from Henri Nouwen – spending time in prayer is not a waste of time, even we have work to do. We found the power of devotional time in our work. Decision to rip up ancient tongue and groove roof decking is support by Karl from New York who has the drawings. It’s Earline Spiller’s birthday. We sing… a bit off key… but we honor her birthday with a cake and a card. She’s a retired schoolteacher whose name is attached to the auditorium of a school in Prince William County, Virginia. Her mother, in her 90’s, is blind. Her father, Earl, died after Katrina – the movement was too much for him. They purchased this home, architecturally a 1930 “shot-gun” house, to raise their children – it has grown many times and sheltered many roofs; two rooms were lost in the storm. It’s important. “I’m archival,” Ms. Spillers says. “This house is history we must preserve.” Back to work. Understanding what is not evident in the old beams and rafters brings a sense of purpose to hour hearts. This work is more than putting together an old, it’s preserving history for a generation that may not know history. This work will be a triumph of hope, put together by teams like ours, coming from far away to offer their time, hands and feet, to serve God. This work will reflect the intrinsic value of what has gone before us.
All seven pairs of hands on deck! Another height-phobia taken by the Spirit: Measuring and nailing down new decking, rolling and nailing the felt, checking out the possibility of tearing out the fourth quarter of the roof. More accomplished than anyone could have imagined. It feels really good to reflect upon the day and consider God’s working in our lives and our work.
Fourth day: “Remember the Sabbath and keep it holy.” Sabbath beings with breakfast together and then the ride to see how this part of Mississippi is faring with recovery. Shock and awe come over us as we notice the devastation. Obvious losses are deepened by the realization that many more losses may be hidden from view: loss of life, work, home family. Opportunities for new growth – do we dare think that commercial development could find a stronger hold upon the beautiful beach-front? Do we dare to think that some re-growth might bring unwanted growth? Do we dare even think what might be developed between casinos, now open for business? We consider the historic preservation of our labor; we consider the neighborhood in which we work; we consider our little bit of work and how it fits into the bigger picture. We followed teams; teams will follow us. It’s the work of community gathered at St. Paul’s UMC, organized in 1863. The work of the “ecclesia” Rev. Ed Moses reminded us during worship is to live the hope in community. The ecclesia is the community gathered under Jesus’ name for the conduit of God’s grace. It’s here, within the body under one roof, that the United Methodist Connection gathers: New York, Virginia, North Carolina, and others accept together the Sacrament of the body and blood of our Lord, Jesus Christ. We came to receive, as one body, the gift of food for our journey. Sabbath rest is good.
Fifth day: More teams arrive. Back to the roof. Back to painting and installing fans. Earlier than we expected, we finished our part. Another team can come behind us and work well. The Connection lives in our work. The Connection and Christ lives in our hearts and in the hearts of those who come to serve. On the road, another sixteen hours to go.
Sixth day: Breakfast in Hertford – back to Captain Bob’s. The sense of community, love, and team has bound us for this work. Our goodbyes over a meal together deliver the promise the presence of the risen Christ. Anita Elliott and Bill & Sue Kruse from Newbegun UMC, Russell Steele from Pilmoor UMC, Chris Garrett & Todd Winslow from Hertford UMC and Rev. Para Lee R. Drake, Pastor of Newbegun, allowed the Spirit of God to make us one in ministry in Mississippi.
A time of penitence and promise, Lent has become an opportunity to go without our usual (indulged) temptations. Lent is an opportunity to give – and to receive – the fellowship and love of others. Called to serve those far away, Lent is an opportunity to sacrifice home-boundedness in favor of travel to a devastated area. Lent offers an opportunity to bring sacrifice into our lives that others might benefit. Lent reminds us that Jesus set his face toward Jerusalem to take the cup he new would be given to him. Lent offers an opportunity to listen to the heart of God through the voices of those who hold out for hope that, one day, all will really be well.
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