A Work Week in Louisiana: An Outreach Experience
By Antonia Godbold
Most anyone will tell you life is a series of peaks and valleys. I was in a small valley when I received the IOCC newsletter offering work weeks in Katrina-devastated areas of the Gulf coast. As a busy home schooling mother of four, I had found myself very self-focused. I was looking for outreach opportunities so that I could feel somehow I was “giving back”. This seemed the perfect solution – a short vacation from the little people and a chance to fulfill that desire for outreach. What a surprise when I found that I still received so much more than I gave.
Our group of six from Holy Apostles Church in Columbia, SC included my priest, Fr. Thomas Moore. We went down for one week in June 2009. We each had to put up $300 to help defray the cost of the trip. Because of the distance, IOCC flew us to the Gulf region where we would work and they gave us each a small stipend for daily meals. We were housed in a community church building outfitted with showers for the volunteers. Each morning before we left for the work site, Fr. Thomas conducted morning prayers in the church chapel.
A survey of the area
IOCC collaborates with Habitat for Humanity on this rebuilding project. That first day we had a tour given by our IOCC contact. He showed us areas that had been affected by Hurricane Katrina, both north of Lake Pontchartrain, where we would be working in Covington, LS, and in New Orleans. As we worked our way down into and around New Orleans, some areas were like ghost towns. We saw street after street of empty houses – broken windows, rooftops askew, weedy lots – all with those mysterious grids and numbers painted on the outside. It was all a very stark reminder of the immediate aftermath of Katrina when houses were systematically searched for the dead. A picture in a magazine cannot do this justice.
The Ninth Ward is now a large area of concrete foundations set into weed-overgrown lots with dirt and gravel pockmarked streets. A few people have come back and are starting to rebuild there. Lots filled with FEMA trailers could be seen from the interstate on the approach to the city. A few trailers were scattered on our tour as well – a sign of those who hope to re-establish themselves. There is so much yet to be done. A bright spot in our tour was our visit to a Greek Orthodox church in the area that, I am told, is the first Greek parish established in America. The church itself is built on a small hill and had flooring placed in the altar just before the hurricane. Amazingly, that extra quarter inch preserved the entire altar and prevented any floodwaters from entering.
Lending a hand, physically and compassionately
For the next five days we worked with two men from Habitat for Humanity, one volunteer who had given the past nine months of his time and various other volunteers who came regularly. One such (retired) volunteer has been giving two to three days a week for the past five years. My one little week of time paled in comparison. We worked at two different sites on homes in different stages of being built. We handled a variety of jobs, from pouring concrete and sanding it when it was dry, to putting up towel racks and finishing touches on a house that was almost completely finished.
Some of the homeowners also came while we worked onsite. We learned that there were a number of qualifications a prospective home recipient had to meet. One was to participate in a number of hours of labor themselves. Another was to have a job. One such woman, a single mom, had recently lost her job because she had to take some time off to care for her sick son. She was tearful while she spoke with one of the worksite supervisors, Tracy, about her fear of losing the house because she was without a job. I watched Tracy, who works each day to get these homes up and running for the recipients, offer a shoulder and a hug with the advice to “just keep praying”. Our other supervisor had told us that Habitat uses the slogan “a hand up, not a hand out”. The “hand up” for this woman, on that day, had nothing to do with a roof over her head. I went to Louisiana thinking I would hammer a few nails to help build a house for someone who had none, and found Christ there on so many different levels.
Our main supervisor was a man who was five years out from a battle with colon cancer. Even on those 100-degree days that we faced, he was there, running about, cell phone in hand, handling problems and details – all with a colostomy bag against his skin inside his shirt. His job was problematic as the liaison between the “administration” and the “men on the ground”. He, too, cares about the people for whom he is working – those who will receive these homes – and it is this that drives him, not the paycheck so many of the rest of us work for. His wife and he joined us one afternoon in a nearby restaurant, telling us of their own Katrina experience.
Outreach near at hand
I traveled several hundred miles only to learn that I didn’t necessarily have to travel that far to do outreach. Outreach is listening to a friend. Outreach is being willing to offer a shoulder to someone who needs one. Outreach is doing work that benefits someone else without thought of payment in return. Outreach in this experience was spending most every moment of a week’s time with fellow parishioners (or other volunteers, as the case may be) that you don’t know well, sharing living space, meals and working shoulder to shoulder in hot and dirty conditions, reaching outside your comfort level to do something for someone else.
Look around you. Is there someone alone or sick you can visit? Is there someone in your community who may just need a shoulder or a “hand up”? How much do you really know about those in your own parish who may be having difficulty? When is the last time you thought of doing some “random act of kindness”?
I would like to share one scene that I will never forget. I have already mentioned the weedy lots and concrete slabs left in the Lower Ninth Ward. That day we saw one site on which someone had planted brightly colored flowers. There, in the pouring rain, amongst amazing devastation was a splash of cheerful red and yellow along the front and side of the slab on the otherwise empty lot. It was such a stark contrast to the surroundings. I wondered if it was a memorial to the dead or a display of hope for the future – maybe both. I was reminded of Christ – His death and His Resurrection and our own hope for eternal life in Him. I found that by turning our focus away from ourselves, we were rewarded in ways that we had never imagined.