Thursday, January 26, 2006

Returning home

I woke up at 6:30 a.m. Wednesday, my first morning back from my one-week mission to Hackberry, La., after getting home at 1:30 a.m. I had to be in the office at 9 a.m. Back to the real world.

My toes are numb from standing all day on my tip-toes as I kneeled into the pitch of the roofs we worked on. My thighs hurt from the constant squatting. My hands hurt from pulling nails and holding an air-compressed gun. My shoulders and back hurt from tossing shingles. My body seems to hurt from head to toe.

Yet, all I can think about is when can I get back to Hackberry?

The pain in my toes, thighs, hands, back and shoulders will go away. The ache in my heart is overwhelming. No aspirin will remedy this pain. I find myself in tears throughout the day, thinking of what I experienced. All week long, people came to us thanking us for helping them. I kept telling them this was an equal blessing thing, but nobody bought it.

These people from the bajou touched my heart with their warmth and friendliness. I will never be the same. I hope I will never be afraid to reach out and help someone in need. I hope I will be able to step out in faith and trust that God will provide finances for me to go on trips like this when I can't afford it. I hope I will take the time to really answer someone in the supermarket when they stop and ask me how I'm doing. I hope I never give the requisite "fine" and move on.
I hope I will always answer "fine, fine. And you? How you doin'?" And really listen to their response.

That is what I take back from Hackberry. These people take the time every day of their lives to spend time with their neighbors. They not only know their next-door neighbors, they know their neighbors six miles away. When they ask how you're doing, they genuinely want to know how you're doing. And when they say they'll be prayin' for ya, you can believe they'll be prayin' for you that very day.

Every day, us Californians complain about how busy our lives are. Our lives can be summed up as we sit bumper to bumper every morning and evening in traffic as we agonize on getting home in time to watch worthless drivel on the television. Then we make fun of the slow, backwards lives of people like those who live in Hackberry. "

Hicks."Yet most in Hackberry would not trade their world with ours. Too fast. Too hectic. Heck, who would they talk to in the supermarket? "Hey, I asked ya how you were doin' and I meant it. Don't walk away. How's your son doin'?

They have so much less than we have, yet they are so much more thankful for what they have. What's wrong with that picture? Most of them have lost their homes. Many of them don't own computers. Most of them don't make the kind of money we in California call poverty level.

Shoot, you could own a mansion in Hackberry for the price of a matchbox condo in Livermore.

And they give so much more. There hearts are where they should be, where Jesus tells us they should be.Slow? They sure figured out fast what's important in life. It is us out in California that is lagging behind in the gettin' it process. It isn't about the cars and the houses and the jobs we possess. It's about being there for our neighbors and lovin' on them when they're hurtin'. It's about droppin' off a casserole when you know they don't have time to fix dinner because they've been at the hospital all day after Dad got hurt on the job.

Whatever happened to "love thy neighbor" out here in California?I think more of us from California need to travel back in time to Louisiana and find out what that commandment, which Jesus said was second only to "love God with all your heart and soul." We are going back to help them put roofs back on. While we're there, they're teaching us how to love our neighbors.

We were constantly thanked for the help we were providing putting on roofs in Hackberry. Help? I can't help thinking that what we're doing is not nearly enough. Not Cornerstone, per se, because I'm extremely proud of what my church is doing.

Already, there's plans in the works to start a disaster relief team to do this again -- and there will be more disasters. I'm talking about the Christian community in general. What we are doing in Hackberry should be happening in every little community in America when disaster strikes.

These are people devastated by an unexpected event. Many times, they don't have insurance. They wait month after month for the government to provide assistance. These are proud people and they are made to feel like they have to beg for government help. And hey, don't forget to vote Republican/Democratic next election, ya hear. Don't forget who helped you!

The church used to be the cornerstone (forgive the pun) of helping those in need. They relinquished their biblical mandate to help the widows and the orphans the the elderly and those who physically can't work to a government who made subsidies a ticket to re-election. The church is allowing the government to snatch its God-given commandment to help those who can't help themselves. It's time for churches to work with other denominations in striving to help others.

It's time we take it back. More churches should be looking at what Cornerstone is doing and find other churches to work with on projects it has a heart for. While in Hackberry last week, we worked for two days with a church from Mississippi. The pastor said his church has no more than 100 people on its rolls and maybe 50 worship on a given Sunday. But he was there with seven other men and one woman that helped shingle an entire church in a day and a half.

Truth be told, First Baptist Church of Hackberry had insurance that would have paid for the roof to be fixed. That church gave the money it saved by us putting on its roof to a neighbor church that didn't have insurance.

When our two churches got done, the contractor who led the Mississippi contingent asked if he could check out our trailer to see how he could better his set-up. They were good at what they do -- they do this sort of thing several times a year and get upwards of 60-70 people for their summer weeklong mission that includes women and children.In comparison, what these two little churches gives easily tops the money Cornerstone has given, some $220,000 and counting, for Hackberry.

As I sit here at my desk on my first day back on the job, I'm trying to figure out how I get back to Hackberry and minister again to the community. But more than anything, I want to learn more about "loving my neighbor," because I clearly don't know enough. Otherwise, God wouldn't have laid this on my heart.

So dream about going to Hackberry and go. Stop making excuses. Trust me, I could not afford to go to Hackberry when I decided to go. I did not have the $300 it took to go, but I was determined to go and sure enough, the money came in.

If you're reading this and thinking, "I live in Phoenix, Arizona," there's other Hackberrys. While we were in Hackberry, we worked with three different groups to put that roof atop First Baptist Church. We worked together, brothers and sisters in Christ. We may have had differences in our doctrine, but we didn't let that get in the way of the end product.

Over breakfast one day, the pastor asked me what I believed was my plan of salvation. I was proud to tell him that I share the gospel of Jesus Christ wherever I go. That I'm a sinner, in need of grace, that Jesus died for my sins and was resurrected three days later and will spend eternity in heaven with our Father. That's what we need to be sharing with the Hackberrys of the world. Without that, they are lost. We are there to help them find their way.

Putting down a roof gets these people's attention. Once we have their attention, it is up to us to share the love and grace of Jesus Christ. It's what pulls them out of the flood and onto dry land, where they can put their lives back together. Without Jesus, the storm continues for these people.

Let the testosterone fly

The tone was set early. A knock on the door came at 6 a.m. “Breakfast is ready. If you want some, you better get up.”

The roofing crew from Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore, Calif., had been working for five days closer to the California clock than the Louisiana clock of their home for a week in Hackberry. Breakfast was served around 8, and work started around 9.

Until Monday. On this day, a crew from Mississippi joined forces with Cornerstone to replace the roof atop First Baptist Church. The group of seven men doubled the Cornerstone contingent. The goal was to get the roof replaced as soon as possible, so as to beat the rains. It was raining lightly when the Mississippi crew came in on Sunday night, but on Monday morning, it was sunny yet cool.

Perfect roofing weather. Not too hot, so that the oil-based shingles stick together when being handled.

A good ol’ boy from Mississippi had made scrambled eggs, sausage and biscuits. At 6, the California boys shuffled in, eyes barely in. It was 4 o’clock their time. The entire contingent from Mississippi sat waiting to dig in. The California cook was happy he didn’t have to cook.

It was also perfect weather to prove your manhood. Could the namby-pamby boys, which actually included one female, from California keep up? Would they want to run into Beaumont, Texas, an hour away for a Starbucks run mid-morning? Would the good ol’boys from Mississippi be able to keep up with the younger crew from out West?

No 9 a.m. starts here. Daylight’s a burnin’. Sunrise is at 7, and we’ll be on the roof by 7:30. All that was needed was a little sunlight to see if storm clouds were brewing. Only rain would keep these two groups from working this day. They compared tools.

It was as though a starter’s pistol went off. “Bang!” The blue FEMA tarp that had been atop the church since Hurricane Rita hit town in September was torn off in rapid fashion. Roof was being ripped off at maddening pace. Nails were speedily being pried out from the old roof. Shingles were speedily being placed. Nail guns were firing like machine guns. On the ground, debris was being placed just as fast on tarps and trailers to be hauled away to the dump.

Testosterone was flying! Chests, and in most cases stomachs, were being puffed out. Heavy breathing was seen all around.

It was West vs. South, and both sides were eager to prove themselves to the other.
Mid-morning coffee break didn’t mean a latte run to Starbucks, though coffee was served. A group of women from northern Louisiana came down the night before to cook a few meals and snacks. The Californians demanded real cream for their coffee. The Mississippians drank it mostly black or with a little powdered cream.

As everyone sat around drinking coffee and eating cookies, the men seemed to settle in, as if to say, “Hey you guys are all right.”

“I got any ibuprofen or Tylenol for anybody that needs it,” shouted one from the California contingent. “For fifty cents.”

Five minutes later, the challenge was renewed. “Back to work,” called the leader of the Mississippi gang. “Hey, we been taking a union mandated 30 minutes,” shouted back one of the California crew.

And back to work they went. But in truth, this wasn’t a competition. They were working as a team to get the roof on as soon as possible. Rain clouds surrounded the area. In the South, the church is the beacon of the community. It’s where you turn when trouble, such as Rita, hits. Aside from the roof, the church’s beloved steeple was torn off the top of the roof. The California crew had spent part of Saturday preparing the steeple for affixation atop the church.

The new shingles were flying at a pace never before seen in these parts. Nail guns were smoking from the rapid firing that was taking place. As many as eight nail guns were firing at once. Huffing and puffing was seen all around.

By 1 o’clock, the call for lunch came. The energy that was so apparent at 7:30 a.m. had slowed. The men crawled off the church and into the dining area. “Hey, is that Tylenol still available?” The average age of the combined roofing career was 58. Their age was showing. Bones were creeking.

The gals from northern Louisiana did their part in keeping the spirits up with the crew by providing a tasty hot lunch: barbecued brisket, au gratin potatoes, corn, a bean salad and brownies, cookies and the requisite sweet tea. “Got any without sugar?” asked a health-conscious California boy. A quizzical look gave him his answer. One of the California boys joked “I heard a massage comes with lunch!” “You got the wrong gals,” one of the cooks joked back.
A spirit of pride enveloped the room. “Hey, we got a lot done this morning.” “Yeah, we really moved.”

The afternoon work session slowed down. Bodies were showing their age. Nail guns were cooling off. Action was taking place in slow motion. Men were anxious for the day to end, so they could take a hot shower and lie down for a nap.

By the end of the day, the largest part of the damaged roof had been replaced, the sanctuary. The church had been meeting in fellowship hall since the hurricane because of water damage to the sanctuary. The aroma of mildew still permeates the church.

Both crews would be gone by the time a majority of the church members would see the new roof. As they finished their work and cleaned up, a sense of pride and unity replaced the competitive spirit that so often drives men.

Imagine driving up to the church parking lot and seeing the steeple back in place, the blue tarp replaced by new shingles. Before going into worship, they will stand and marvel at how fast the roof went up. The next Bible study or service will begin with a prayer of thanks, not only for labor-free roof, but for the sense of normalcy returning to the community.

In small communities such as Hackberry, steeples are a haven for safety from the elements, whether real or imagined. Steeples and crosses have always meant security for a community in the midst of tragedy. How many times have town hall meetings been in a church? How many times has the church been the place where people congregate after a storm?

That’s what brought the men from around Yazoo City, Miss., here in the first place. It wasn’t Hurricane Rita that spurred them into action. Throughout the year, they work with the Southern Baptist Association in making repairs or building new churches, here in the United States or in Mexico. Helping the people of Hackberry is what brought the contingent from Livermore, Calif., here in the aftermath of Rita.

The two groups came from different parts of the country with a common goal of putting on a new roof for a church that had about 40 worship the day before, six of whom came from California. They worked together, different faiths, Baptists and Calvary Chapel, as people of faith. While working side by side, they talked about their different worlds. At the end of the day, there was equal admiration. Both sides brought hard work and skills to the roof.

As you stand on the newly shingled roof of First Baptist Church in Hackberry and turn 360 degrees, blue FEMA tarps can seen in every direction. Nearly six months after the tragedy of Rita, there is still much work to be done. Down the road 30 minutes on the Gulf Coast, the neighboring towns of Holly Beach and Cameron are just gone – literally gone. The groups from Cornerstone and Southside Baptist will return to ply their trades again.

The town of Hackberry itself has dwindled from 1,700 to about 1,100, but townspeople are filtering back in. As they drive down the main road, they can now see the steeple atop First Baptist Church.

Just affixing that steeple atop the church will give hope to these simple people. A collective sigh of relief can be felt in Hackberry. Calm, at least temporarily, has replaced the storm that continued long after Rita left.

Aftermath: The next morning, no one got up early for breakfast, which was served at California time. Only one from the California crew attended. Work throughout the morning was more cordial. Everyone joked around more. Individuals from each team worked more together.
After we left for the Houston airport mid-afternoon, the Mississippi crew had finished and were leaving at the same time. One of the good ol’ boys commented, “My opinion of Californians had changed since he met us.” He went on to say he might just hire someone from California.
The contractor that headed the group said he had never worked with a crew that laid so many shingles in such a short amount of time. South vs. West was a winning proposition for the people of Hackberry.

A real southern belle

Miss Liz is the epitome of a Southern Belle. She’s quick with a smile and a laugh, polite and friendly, and that’s just to us foreigners. Imagine how she is with those she knows. Actually, I think she treats everyone the same.

Miss Liz Phillips is 83 years old, still drives and still cooks. Oh, yes, she still cooks. For the past two days, we’ve been putting on a new roof for Miss Liz and her husband, Mr. Bill. They have a beautiful home a hop, skip and a jump from the Calcaseu and five minutes from town. Next door is her sister’s home, although she’s now living in a retirement home, and down the road is 10 barren acres she and her husband own.

Miss Liz grew up in Hackberry, attended First Baptist Church as a little girl and got married to Bill at age 18 and left for 50 years while he was in the service and later worked in nearby Lake Charles. Then they returned to their roots to retire.

I first met Miss Liz at 8 o’clock one morning. She pulled up in a big car and immediately started a conversation. She had with her a King Cake, a tasty tradition around here. Inside each cake, you’ll find a candied baby, an age-old tradition. It isn’t uncommon for townspeople to drop off food for us any time of the day. For five minutes we shot the breeze like we were old friends.

Thirty minutes later, we arrived at our next roofing job. It was Miss Liz’s house. She is no more than 4½ feet tall, but she towers over everyone with her ?? presence. Now, in the South, you can’t go to work on someone’s house without saying hello, so I reacquainted myself with Miss Liz. Another five minute conversation ensued. I found myself throwing out more ma’ams and ya’alls than I normally say in a given day.

A little while later, she brought out coffee and a box of little pecan pies for us. Sugar and cream accompanied our morning imbibe. On a tray were coffee cups, not Styrofoam cups for all of us. A short while later, the coffee pot was plugged into keep the coffee warm, just in case we needed a refill. In the afternoon, the same thing happened.

That night, when we got back to the church, she had left a plate of brownies for us. Ice cream and those brownies became our dessert. They were an instant hit.

The next day, we returned to finish her roof. It’s was a difficult work, because of the pitch. The house has a bedroom upstairs, so it’s like a 1½ story house. The house was not damaged badly in the storm, but it was on our repair list because of the holes in the roof. It had been half covered with plastic tarp since the storm in September.

Mid-morning, it was coffee time again, and this time we shimmied down the ladders a little more quickly to retrieve our coffee and pecan pie. If we were back in the Bay Area, we’d retreat to Starbucks. Here, we were able to sit and talk, get to know someone who has lived in Louisiana most of her life. The slow-pace of life and politeness is how she was raised, and she couldn’t imagine life any other way. She couldn’t be impolite if you twisted her arm.

During the break, I decided to be bold and present a request to her. “Ma’am, would you make us some tea this afternoon? It’s going to be warm and humid, and I think the men would appreciate a cold drink instead of coffee.”

“Absolutely.” And off she shuffled.

But the real treat was our lunch, red beans and rice, courtesy of Miss Liz. They were waiting for us in warm pots upon our arrival at the church. She didn’t just give them to us as we left, she drove them to the church. We didn’t even see her drive off with two pots. She didn’t have time to make us cornbread, the requisite accompaniment with red beans and rice, so she stopped and bought us fresh loaves of French bread at Jimmy Brown’s market. She apologized profusely for the oversight, but she just didn’t have time.

Usually, our lunch is cold cuts, so having red beans and rice, a staple in these parts, was a delight. Like the locals, I grabbed a bowl, scooped a big helping of rice and smothered it with red beans and rice, which is really much more than that. Smoked sausage and pork spiced it up a little bit.

That afternoon, after we finished the roof, she came out and told us the tea was ready. Not only was the tea ready, she expected us to come inside and visit. In time, in stumbled all six of us dirty, tired men and one woman. It wasn’t one of those 30-second California visits. It was one of those Louisiana hour visits.

Here, when someone asks you how you are, you may here the common “fine, fine. And you, how ya doin? And how’s your wife.” When they ask, they really want to know and they expect to have a conversation with you. If they haven’t talked to you in a day or two, they expect to get caught up. No one is looking at their watch, as if to say “I have more important things to do.” No, the most important thing in their life at that moment is chatting with you. There is no hurry around here.

So it was with Miss Liz. As we sat in her living room, we heard about her life, her family history, her upbringing. After all, we’d just spent two days fixing her roof. Sure, she could have just disappeared while we pounded nails into her roof for eight hours a day for two days, but that would have been impolite. It was the least she could do to offer us coffee, pecan pie and sweet tea.

Oh yes, the sweet tea. Sweet tea is a Southern tradition. Whenever you order tea in the South, expect sugar in it. I grew up putting only a squeeze from a lemon wedge in my tea, and I drink a lot in the summer time, but I never add sugar. When I told Miss Liz I wanted my tea plain, she looked squeamish. “I couldn’t drink it without sugar.” It was as though I were drinking Ipacac.

She was entertaining as she told us what it was like to go through the storm of a lifetime. Actually, she told us about two storms. She’d also gone through the last storm of this magnitude, Audrey in 1957. She compared the two as if they’d happened within a few days of each other, yet they were nearly 60 years apart.

She told us about the gators, about the shrimping, about the crabs, about the water level coming within 15 feet of their beloved house – the water is about a hundred yards from their porch. By then, they’d abandoned their house and driven to safety. Her sister in the rest home was evacuated safely out of New Orleans and is now living in Baton Rouge.

As we left, she implored us to stay awhile longer. “Ya’all have to leave so soon?” Our visit had lasted well over an hour, yet we were just beginning in her mind. It was near darkness and it was time for us to retreat to our headquarters for a barbecue. As we left, each one of us waited patiently in line and hugged Miss Liz. After all, we’re now lifetime friends. This is not the last we’ll see of Miss Liz, I’m sure. Undoubtedly, there will be another coffee cake or treat sitting on the counter one day before we leave.

Because she’s a lady and that’s how ladies act. She’s earned the title.

This is hard work

I can’t believe I tore my brand new Tommy Hilfiger jeans! I hadn’t even washed them yet.

It is Thursday, and today, we roofed our second house. This one was more difficult in that it was bigger and the pitch was steeper. I tore my pants on a nail. Cheap pants. That’s what I get for splurging on pants that just aren’t me. I’m a Levi’s and Old Navy kind of guy.

Today was a more difficult day for us, but we got a lot more done. Part of it is just getting better at what we do. There are six or seven of us working on the roof. The difficulty is just keeping your balance.

We worked on Miss Liz’s house. She is 83 years old and lives with her husband, Bill. At 8 or so in the morning, this lady pulls in driving a nice car. She gets out and chats with me for 5 minutes. She had a store-bought cake for us, with a baby inside! It’s a tradition for King Cakes. I had no idea who she was. When we got to the house, it was hers. The cake was her way of saying thanks for the work. Later in the day, she dropped off a plate of brownies. Bribery.

Miss Liz is the epitome of Southern hospitality. At about 10, she made us a pot of coffee. She brought us coffee in a coffee pot and plugged it in to keep it warm. Twice during the day, she made us coffee and left it on the porch for us.

Her property sits next to the Calcaseu River, which means one thing: skeeters. We sprayed often with bug spray, and still, they ate us up. We joke about it through the day. At night, when we were leaving in the dark, we got in the car and fought off maybe 10 mosquitoes, all fairly large. I’m keeping score of my battles. I have six kills, and I plan to notch my belt at the end of the day. I could not imagine living in a place like this, in which mosquitoes are around year round.

I blew my food assignment. I was supposed to start the stew at lunchtime, but I spent 30 minute so the Internet trying to download a daily devotional I send out to single parents, as well as the blog. The blog made it, the devotional did not. The computer we work off of at the church is a dinosaur. It’s almost Dos. It has 8,000 games on it with maybe 56 K of ram, with dial up.

I hear Mr. Jimmy has high speed at his store, so I’m going over for coffee tomorrow at 6 a.m. We are spoiled with wi-fi and highs-speed Internet connections. After you’ve had speed, you can’t go back. But I don’t have other alternatives. We wanted to post some pictures on the Internet, but the process took well over 30 minutes and our daylight hours are precious.

I store memory from my laptop in a flash drive. It stores something like 126 K of ram, and I keep my writing files on it. Except that this computer doesn’t have an ISB outlet to connect. When I put it in, the computer said, “What ya’all putting in this here computer? Where do you think you are? California?” In the next room is a nice Dell computer, but it isn’t hooked up to the Internet, but it has an ISB outlet. I download from the flash drive and put my stories on a 2K floppy. Then I run back over to the next room and put it up. What takes me maybe 2 minutes at home, takes maybe 20 minutes here. We can only get two photos on the floppy, so we abandoned trying to download them, for now. Eventually, we’ll get to it. For now, we’re storing Susan’s daily photos on my laptop.

Back to the story I started 20 minutes ago. I messed up the stew, so I moved up chili night, but forgot the kidney beans. I had someone else on our team pick them up, but we didn’t stop work until after 6 and it was dark as night. Had I made chili when I got home, we’d just be eating at 8.

Instead, we went to Babe’s the only restaurant in town. It’s a bar and a couple of pool tables up front with restaurant out back with seating for maybe 20 people. Babe’s son got our drinks. Babe’s wife waited on us. We asked her where she got the name, and for the next three minutes, we heard how the name came about. In an abbreviated version, her husband’s nickname is babe, even for the grandkids. When they decided to open a restaurant, it became Babe’s.

I had a shrimp po boy, but without the po boy bread, much to my dismay. Because I’ve never had a po boy, I wouldn’t know what a po boy tastes like, I wouldn’t have missed the special bread. It’s the only thing I craved this week.

We saw Babe later. He’s a babe – in these parts. Nice missing front tooth. Friendly as can be. He apologized profusely for having only sweet tea because a catering job earlier in the day took all of their unsweetened tea. I’m not a sweet tea guy, but I’m also not a soda guy, and alcohol is prohibited on church mission trips.

At the end of the night, we got a treat. A free dinner. Seems an earlier group of ours reroofed the restaurant after it was damaged in the storm. A perfect ending for the day. We are all exhausted.

Life in Louzeeanna

T-h-i-s i-s a-n-o-t-h-e-r w-o-r-l-d. L-i-f-e h-e-r-e i-s s-o s-l-o-w. N-o o-n-e i-s i-n a h-ur-r-y.

That’s life in Louziana, and they ain’t changing.

I volunteered to do the food, because I’m a foodie, as they say in the Bay Area. Breakfast was whatever I could find in the fridge, which amounted to half of a kielbasa, a couple pieces of thick bacon, 13 eggs, a couple of giant spuds, some mushrooms, some onions and a dozen buttermilk biscuits that just sort of showed up in the kitchen the day we arrived. We had no potato peeler, so I had to peel four potatoes with a paring knife.

Breakfast was frittata with sausage, onions, mushrooms and cheddar cheese, potatoes baked in chicken stock and coffee. We almost had a riot from our crew because we had to drink Folgers. One of our crew, Susan, had brought ground coffee from the Bay Area, but she horded it in the motor home she’s staying in.

My being the chef meant had to do the shopping. Jimmy Brown’s market is a block from the church that is our headquarters. I had enough food to feed eight for 3-4 days, but before I left, I had to find Mr. Jimmy, the owner, because I was hoping to find someone to teach me how to make some gumbo or jambalaya. He left his office, which was no bigger than 10-feet by 5-feet, and employed his wife and daughter, to go find his son, who was loading a truck out back. They went over 3-4 names of people who could teach me how to make gumbo or jambalaya. I don’t think people in the South are physically capable of asking just one question. The tradeoff is Mr. Jimmy loves Mexican food and he heard that was my specialty and asked me to cook Mexican food for him. Deal.

When it came time to check out, I quickly realized this would take awhile. Mind you, at Safeway or Albertson’s, I would have been out of there in five minutes. Miss Donnie was doin’ checkout and she’s got one speed. I tried to make the best of the situation. We chit-chatted about the area. “You with the group from California.” “Yes, ma’am.” Ten minutes later, I was out of there.

And just like the big towns, they had a bagger. Course, he was having lunch out behind the market, and Miss Donnie had to call him over the intercom system. He even walked me out to our van and helped me load up. For my one-block drive.

One of the things you notice in the South is that everyone is polite and respectful. Men are expected to refer to women as ma’ams. Mr. and Miss is used with everyone’s first name. There is a reverence for the elderly. You are expected to say good-bye to a grandmother with a personal message and even a hug, even though you’ve never met before. There is a politeness that is admirable. They were doing it 150 years ago in the south, and they’re still doing it.

I was late to my roofing job because of the shopping, but no one minds. They’ve realized I can cook and have no problem with me spending time in the kitchen. Today, we almost finished the roof of a house of perhaps 900 square feet. It was pretty much square and easy to lay the shingles, made of fiberglass and oil and other junk I can’t explain. My job is to play, I mean, to use an air-compressed nail gun. Two of us worked together in working on a quarter of the roof at a time. My partner, Greg Dean, is a contractor based out of Castro Valley. I asked lots of questions, apologized profusely for silly mistakes.

Growing up on a farm, I knew to take good care of my equipment and to walk gingerly up and down the extension ladders. My dad was an OSHA (Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration, or something like that) inspector, and he always taught us to work safely (which is funny, because I probably still hold the record for wrecking his trucks one year I worked for him).

A nail gun has about 40 pounds of pressure, which would I instantly send a nail through a finger or toe. I decided not to buy steel-toed boots for the trip, so it was imperative that I use the gun carefully. It isn’t something to joke around with. When a gun broke down temporarily, we used hammers for 30 minutes. I would not have made a good roofer if I had to use a hammer. I watched the other guys pound nails quickly and confidently, but I don’t have the skill.

My girlfriend of five months, Susan Ranieri, is here as part of our team. I was late starting this morning because I was shopping and talking with the local folks. When I got on the roof, I watched admiringly as she worked hard laboring. She wore gloves just like the men. Her job was laying the shingles in place, while a few of us nailed them in with the air-guns. She didn’t ask for any special favors. She had asked me the week before not to give her any special treatment, because she came here to work and pull her weight. In the evening, she washed the dishes and cleaned the kitchen, too. Right after taking a 45-minute shower. The privileges of being a woman in a mostly men’s workplace.

One thing I like about our operation is that it is well organized. Each team has a contractor-type person in charge. They decide man of the procedures we use, but the three other men on our crew all have legitimate skills. I’m not in their league. I played up my culinary skills on the questionnaire. But it takes all kinds to make a mission trip like this work properly.

In 2 Chronicles, Solomon inquired of his buddy, Hiram, king of Tyre, to send him his best tradesmen in his kingdom to build the temple for the Lord. He carefully selected the men who would build the temple, because he saw that they took pride in their work. (Do you suppose Solomon brought in special chefs to feed his working men?) I see these three other men working so diligently. For free. They are so skilled at their trade. For their love of helping people. Two of the guys go on Mexico missions during spring break doing virtually the same thing. Then there is Susan and me, going on our first short-term mission. We both hope it is not our last together.

People from our church have donated $220,000 to help in the relief. Thousands of people pray for our crews when we are here. Pastor Mark Comella is driving around picking up equipment and tools we need, while scouting out future jobs. The next team in is set for Jan. 31. His wife, Debbie, is organizing the books so we know who we’re helping and why.

Everything is done with order in how we help in the community. The elderly are first, widows and single moms next, then families and singles. Virtually everyone in town needs help of some sort. Few were immune from the impact of Hurricane Rita and the ensuing tornadoes that hit the town.

As we sit on the roof and look around, few houses were left untouched by the storm. Most houses have tarps covering at least part of the roof. The house we are working on is next door to the church and was completely covered by a tarp the day before. The house is still boarded up, possibly because all the windows were blown out from Rita. The house that used to sit next door is not a cement slab. I’ve seen a boat that is sitting in the middle of nowhere, having been carried from the Calcaseu River. Mini-tornadoes ripped apart just as many houses as Rita. Whereas a hurricane can pull up an entire house (building codes are virtually non-existent in Louisiana), a tornado will buzz through the middle of a house and leave the garage 10 feet away intact.

The house next door and the house across the street have FEMA trailers in the yard. FEMA gives trailers to people to live in for up to 18 months while their houses are repaired. They are all fairly similar, about 30 feet long. One family we work with has 10 people living under the same roof.

This is perhaps the poorest parish in Louisiana, pronounced Lou-z-anna here, and most families were impacted in some way. The region is aided by the fact that the two major employers in the area, the shrimping industry and oil and gas, has not reduced its work force.

Today was a beautiful day. It was warm and sunny, maybe 65, with a good 30 mph wind. We joked about Rita being a hundred mph higher. The good thing about the wind is that it keeps down the skeeters. I covered my body in skeeter (mosquitoes for Californians) spray for nothing. Coming back from the store, there was a skeeter in the car that I had to battle. I smacked him once, only to see him fly away. Sort of mocking me for my weak slap. “Must be one of those Californians.” I had to hit him again to kill him.

Before I went to work, I put on my eau de deet, the spray-on kind. I got some of it on my lips and I found out it’s sort of like a short-term collagen thing. It made my lips puff up. Heck of a lot cheaper than plastic surgery. The skeeters left me alone today.

One of the things you learn from working here is that the damage didn’t just come from the winds. Surge waters, the aftermath of the hurricane, is what pushes the water two feet here in Hackberry. Twelve miles down the road, right on the Gulf of Mexico, Cameron, is now no longer a town. It is completely abandoned because virtually everything was destroyed.

We have fun as we work. We tease each other just like teenagers. Two of the men joked that there was a bull next door and they weren’t going near the house we were supposed to work at because he was mean. Growing up around cattle, I said I’d take care of him. So when I saw him, I had to check him out. Only it wasn’t a him, it was a her. When I pointed out to the guys that it was a cow they were scared of, and very docile, I might add, we laughed. “How do you know it’s a cow?” “Because bulls have testacles and cows have teets. That cow has teets. And besides,” I said, pointing over at her, “cows pee out the back. Bulls pee underneath.”

As we were finishing our day, a song came on the country and western station we were listening to. The person singing the song was lamenting the fact that he could see the um … buttcracks of the roofers on the house. Then there was something about the gal smoking Pal Mals. This would be our theme song for the week. We don’t know any of the words to the song, but we’ll never forget it.

Tonight, we had a Bible study at First Baptist of Hackberry, and they talked about 11 families that used to comprise First Baptist of Cameron, which, despite just 12 miles away, takes 30 minutes to drive to. The surge there went 24 feet.

Church groups from northern Louisiana, Texas and New Mexico are also working in the region. This weekend, we will work with another Baptist church from up north in putting on the roof of our host church, which had seven people at the Bible study, while eight came from Livermore, Calif. That is typical of churches in the area. There are few mega churches in these parts. Home churches with a handful of families is common here. Fifty people is a large church in these parts.

When the pastor, who doubles as a sheriff’s deputy in the area, asked for prayer requests, their needs were very real and severe. One man was battling FEMA. One man from the congregation had just had a large cancer removed from his cheek. Everyone knew everyone and what they were going through.

In the back, the California contingent comprised half the group. Dinner was simple: spaghetti, a California salad (raisins and pears are not on too many salads in these parts), garlic bread and for dessert, chocolate chip cookies and ice cream.

It was a good ending to the day. Everyone is tired. No one wants to go to bed. It is 8 p.m. here, but 6 p.m. California time. In a short time, two of our team is in bed. There is absolutely no nightlife in Hackberry. There is not a single bar. Mr. Jimmy’s store closes at 9, opens at 5 to sell lunch products to the oil and shrimping people.

The conclusion of our evening is spent talking about the day and the mission we’re on. The kitchen is clean, shoes are off. Life is simple. The way it’s meant to be. Perhaps it is we in the Bay Area that are the backwards culture, going so fast we don’t have time to talk to the checkout person because we’re in too big a hurry. Or we eat our meals at fast-food joints instead of sitting down with family or friends and having a meaningful discussion beyond hold the pickles and lettuce. You can see our team beginning to enjoy the lifestyle here.

We will sleep well tonight. We worked hard.

Thursday, January 19, 2006

We are family

We were driving to a Bible study on our first night in Hackberry, Tuesday night, when the little girl from town started giving us a glimpse of her life.

"My mama locked me in the closet once when I was little. It was dark. I was scared. … Another time, she drug me down the stairs and I got a pink cast on my arm. … She lives in Texas. My daddy took me away from her."
Whew. I thought we were going to have to call child protective services on our first night in Louzeeana. She was friendly. She was inviting. She was engaging. She wanted to know what life was like outside of Hackberry, the only world she knows. Throughout the Bible study, she slept upright on the couch, tired head resting on the palm of her hand.

There are three children who practically live at the church that is our home base for the roofing work we’re doing this week. The older ones, a boy and a girl, are both in the seventh grade, the boy having flunked once already. The third is six years old. It appears her daddy lives with the mama of the other two. In a trailer no more than 30 feet long. With seven other people, including a 17-year-old sister who has a 7-month old baby.

The children are starving for attention, love and affection. The make friends easily with team members from Cornerstone Fellowship of Livermore, Calif. The parents don’t seem to mind that they are out at all hours of the night with these virtual strangers from California. The night before we got here, they went with the team to the "Hackberry Hilton," a nearby hunting and fishing lodge that put on a dinner for the previous team. Over lunch on Tuesday, as we were coming, and the others were going, the team members shared stories about them and told us their curfew was 11 p.m. We instantly made their curfew 10. Mind you, this is a school night, albeit 2½-day weeks because the local school shares its undamaged facilities with another nearby school.

These children have no hope.

Let me reiterate that statement. These children have no hope without the love of God. Clearly, they all know the Lord, thankfully. At the Bible study on Tuesday night, the boy sat with a townsman and paid attention to what was being said. He knew the words to all the southern spirituals we sang, few of which us Californians could sing after the first verse. He was not tugging on shirts. "Can we go now?" like other teenagers might do. No, that would ultimately mean going, which does not seem to be a big desire for these three kids.

I have chosen not to reveal the children’s names for this blog for their protection and safety. I have one request: Please pray for their safety and upbringing of the Lord. The pastor at the church is aware of the situation and feels they’re better off just hanging around our people than they are to go home to the insanity that is their lives.

Eleven o’clock curfew? They do not want to go home. To a life I cannot imagine. My 900-square foot condo seems so spacious right about now, even with my teenage son living with me. And a large canine. As I sit and type, at 5 a.m. local time, 3 a.m. California time, I could not sleep as I thought of them. On the table is a note that was printed on the church computer by the teenage girl. I was the last one in the church the night before, and I turned out the lights. The note was to a friend somewhere. "Pray for David (not her brother) - healing for his Dad! Steven (also not her brother) is fine, ate salmon," read the handwritten note. When we left at 9 o’clock, I had to ask the boy if he needed a ride home. "No, I got my bike," and off he sped, to where I can’t say. There was a full moon out, and quite beautiful, I might add, but there are few street lights in town to guide him home safely.

We look for ways to care for them in a loving, godly way. We want to give them rules and correct them when they act improperly. Our first night, our team talked about boundaries with the children. Don’t be alone with them. Two of us need to drive them home at night. While we were working on the roof next door on Wednesday, we schemed to put the boy to work cleaning up the shingles on the ground and pay him $5 an hour, only to be beaten to the punch by another team member who put him to work managing the trailers we are living in (donated by a nearby mission group).

The boy is trying to responsible beyond his age. He has volunteered to help me in the kitchen. He was astonished that I made him wash his hands before I allowed him to stir a pot for me. He took a load of laundry down the street to do laundry at a laundry mat during the day. The previous week, he did much of the cooking for the all-male group. A member of our group, Ted, has taken the time to teach him how to tend to our trailers, such as monitoring the toilets and propane so that we will be comfortable after Ted returns to the Bay Area today.

I was the last one to eat lunch, and when I sat next to my girlfriend, Miss Sue, the littlest asked me, "Why do you always sit by her?" "Because she’s my sweetie." And the three of us talked throughout my lunch. Fearing bad breath, she gave me a tiny breath mint as a gift. She engaged us about life in California.

After lunch, her sister was going to show me how to log onto the Internet on the church computer(which just so happens to be filled with downloaded kid games), but first I had show the youngest my assortment of Web photos I keep on my laptop as screensavers. I have quite an array of scenescapes, my favorite of which are beach shots.

"What kind of pictures would like you like to see," I asked her. "Nature? Animals …" "Yes, animals." I put the group of pictures up and set it for a slide show, which she enjoyed immensely. "That’s beautiful." "Oooh." "That’s perty." "Want another Tic Tac." "No thank you darling. I still got the other one you gave me," I said as I stuck my tongue out, green breath mint sitting there."

None of them appear to have bathed in several days. Today, I think Miss Susan will take the little one to our shower and give her a bath and wash her hair. Make her perty.

Each of us carries a burden for these children. We all want to love on them. If we asked any of them, I think they would have no problem stowing away in our suitcases to come to California with us. In fact, the teenage girl has already told us that when she’s 18, she’s leaving Hackberry to come and live in Livermore. "I just love Cornerstone. It’s a great church. I hear it’s big." The church has 4,000 people walk through its doors on
Sundays. There are 6,000 people in Cameron parish, total, about 1,100 in Hackberry.

She has never been to Livermore. For all she knows, it is the Barstow of the Bay Area. To her it is a beautiful place, because she has met so many beautiful people from there. Friendly, loving people. She is starving for both. She had no qualms about becoming friendly with twenty-something college men who were with the previous group. "Do you know (so and so)? They’re my friends."

Then she went on to tell us how much she hated living where she is and that she wanted to get away from it as soon as possible. Surely, Livermore is better than Hackberry.

She is bright and bubbly, always ready for a conversation, with the typical Louzeeanna twang that is soft and melodic coming from her lips. Always, she has questions about life outside Hackberry. Giving up a life with her mom and her mom’s live-in boyfriend and siblings doesn’t seem to bother her.

Susan and I have talked about her and how we can help her. I suggested that Susan would be the one to talk to the teenage girl about her goals in life and how to attain them. Getting pregnant at 15 would keep her in Hackberry awhile longer than she intends. So Susan is waiting for the right timing to talk to her about chastity and staying pure during her teenage years. In essence, "If you want to come to California, you’re going to have to tell the boys NO!" And they will be coming, I assure you.

Susan is a single mom who cares about her own son, 11, deeply, as well as other children. She has a heart for them. Susan and I have a covenant relationship not to have sex unless we marry, so she can talk openly about her desires and struggles she has about her sexuality with a teenager, but tell this impressionable girl that waiting is a choice we make, first and foremost to honor God. She has never seen that in her life, so how would she know to tell a boy no.

Saying no to boys may be her only way out. She could be homecoming queen or valedictorian at Hackberry High, but the day after graduation, she’s outta here, with a one way bus ticket to Livermore, if she has her way.
Our group has talked about other ways of helping the children as a church. It was suggested we send the two older children to summer camp, where they can be around other teenagers who love the Lord. We cannot make promises we know we cannot keep. The want to keep contact with everyone they meet from Cornerstone.
Yesterday, they were here at 1 o’clock; school let out at 12;30. Today, they will be with us most of the day, no doubt, because their part of the school week has ended. We will feed them three squares and their parents will never call to check up on them. I’m betting they’re here at 8 a.m., unbathed and possibly in the same clothes. Ready to be loved.

They are on my heart. I awakened at 3 a.m. local time, 1 a.m. California time, and found myself praying for them and crying for their lot in life. "Help them, Lord, you’re their only hope."

So that is my request for anyone who reads this. Pray for these three children. If Hurricane Rita hadn’t ravaged their city, they never would have known what a friendly town Livermore really is. Where would they have gotten that love we have given them so freely? Thankfully for them, we serve a God who has taught us how to love others.

Wednesday, January 18, 2006

We're here

Last night was like the first night of school for a kid. Even though I was exhausted and had to get up at 3:30 a.m., I could not sleep. I got maybe three hours before getting up and heading to church, where our ministry team met before heading to the Oakland airport to fly to Houston. From there it was a three hour drive to Hackberry in rented cars.

When I was a boy, that night before school started was always one filled with anxiety after a three-month summer vacation. Because I grew up on a farm in the country, I often didn’t seem my school mates for three months. Who had moved away? Who shot up like a bean stock? As I got older, I wondered if there was a cute new girl in town. Who would be my teacher?

I had a similar feeling last night? What would the people of Hackberry be like? What would the town look like? Would trailers still be turned over from Rita four months before? Would roofs still be collapsed? Would Mr. Jimmy be sitting in a rocking chair on the front porch of his general store?

And it isn’t just those we help that we get to know. Part of the missions experience is getting to know your team members. There are seven of us, including our team leader, Pastor Mark Comella and his wife, Debbie. Including my girlfriend of five months, Susan Ranieri, whom I met at about the same time the hurricanes hit the Gulf Coast last year. We met on Aug. 27, and Katrina hit New Orleans on Aug. 29. Rita hit mostly west of New Orleans, including Hackberry, a few weeks later.

On the plane, we are chatting about the trip and getting to know one another. Susan and I are sitting together, reading our Bibles and listening to Dilerious on my laptop while the man next to us is playing Texas Holdem on his computer. I wonder what he’s listening to on his I-Pod.

We met our church’s previous team on their way home at a Cracker Barrel in Beaumont, Texas. The 10 guys told us story after story of their experience in Hackberry. They put roofs on houses. At times, these grown men had tears in their eyes as they told the sadness of life. At other times, a smile creased their faces as they shared the joys of helping people deeply in need, with nowhere else to turn. A week from now, we will not have that same opportunity, as our church is taking a week off. We will return in February.

Driving over in two vehicles, we could see the devastation get worse the closer we got to Hackberry. Beaumont, Texas, was about two hours out of Houston, and that was where the debris looked decidedly worse and worse. Trees were down everywhere. Roofs were indiscriminately damaged. From the freeway, you could see patches of roof covered with plastic tarps.

By the time we got to Hackberry, it was dark. It’s virtually an island on the Calcaseu River. There was Mr. Jimmy’s store. First Baptist Church, our headquarters, is a half block down the road. I planned breakfast for the next morning and was told Mr. Jimmy’s opened at 5 a.m. and to just to get what we needed and put it on the church’s charge account. Just like in the movies.

We were invited to a Bible study at a house seemingly in the middle of nowhere, but was really 10 minutes outside of Hackberry. The house belonged to Frank Brown, brother of Jimmy. Their brother Pat was there, as was their parents, now living in Frank’s home because their home in Cameron is nothing but a concrete slab. They are both in their 80s and in good spirits.

The thing you noticed first was how slow things are around here. At the Cracker Barrel, they just sort of brought food to our table of 16 for no more than 3-4 at a time. No one seemed in a hurry. In town, everyone is polite. There is an air of respect for the elderly. The men are all called Mr. something, such as Mr. Jimmy, the women Miss something, like Miss Evonne, even when they’re married

The sad part is that three children seem to practically live at the church, ranging in age from perhaps age 8 to age 13. They are starving for attention and affection. They each quickly pick up our names and hang around us constantly. We have certain rules with them, but they don’t seem to want to go home or care about what time school starts the next day. The last group made them go home at 11, but we decided that was too late. Ten o’clock.

It is 10:30 on Tuesday night as I write this. I am exhausted. But that means 8:30 California time. I’m ready for bed, but that means I’ll be waking up at 4 or 5 a.m., which is 2 or 3 a.m. California time. I am anxious for the week to get started. Tomorrow will come soon enough.

Monday, January 16, 2006

Bringing aid to Hackberry

This story first appeared in the Tri-Valley Herald on Jan. 16, 2006. Used by permission.

By Doug Mead

After Hurricane Rita devasted the Gulf Coast last summer, most people were fleeing the area in search of food and shelter.

But not three members of Cornerstone Fellowship in Livermore. Pastor Mark Comella and his wife, Debbie, and pastor Jarrett Petero jumped on a flight to Houston, rented a car and headed toward New Orleans.

They left the interstate and headed south near Lake Charles, La., in search of gasoline and came upon scenes of destruction: downed power lines and trees and dead livestock. The group sort of stumbled upon two women sifting through a pile of rubble from their trailer, which no longer existed.

“We just got out of the car and asked if we could help her (Miss Effi),”said Comella, pastor of caregiving at Cornerstone. “She was in tears. We just spent time with her and talked with her, prayed with her.

“Her husband came home. He hadn’t been home since the hurricane six days ago. He hadn’t seen everything he owned was gone. He was stoic. He was pretty tough, joking a little as he went through stuff. He found a picture of his brother. His home was destroyed. I asked him if he wanted to keep the picture. ‘That’s my brother. He’s passed away. It’s the only picture I have of him.’ He broke down, sobbing. He’d come to the realization he’d lost everything.”

Four days later back in Livermore, Comella and Petero met with senior pastor Steve Madsen, and they quickly decided to send teams back as soon as possible.

That started an ongoing relationship between Cornerstone and the town of Hackberry, La., population 1,700 before the storm, approximately 1,100 today. The people of Cornerstone joke that they’ve “adopted” Hackberry, which isn’t far from the truth. The church has sent about 110 short-term relief workers and raised $220,000 in aid for Hackberry in the past four months.

Within a week, the church sent the first of 10 missions teams to Hackberry, about three hours west of New Orleans. The 11th is set to leave Jan. 17.

Each team has had at least eight people and as many as 15 spend a week at a time in the town. Last year teams worked on tearing down damaged homes, while this year’s teams will build. At Christmas, 204 families were adopted,with toys, clothes and toiletries sent from Livermore in a semi-tractor and trailer. A team cooked Christmas dinner for 450 people.

The church says it will keep sending money and people as long as there is a need.

For Ted Prince of Livermore, helping people in need comes second nature.He is 67, semi-retired and owns a cleaning business, so he can pick up and go when he chooses. After 9/11, he went with a Cornerstone group and worked on the relief effort at Ground Zero. He was planning to go to Thailand last fall when Rita ravaged the Gulf Coast. Suddenly a closer locale made more sense to him.

Last week, Prince made his third trip to Hackberry. He said he has grown fond of the town.

“I think it’s the sense of helping people in need, people that have lost everything,” he said from Hackberry by cell phone. “They don’t have homes, some of them. We get here, we help them clean out their house, get life in order a little.

“We’ve been able to do things where they’ve jumped for joy, thanked us up and down. We prayed for them, helped restore them to some sense of being normal. ... A crisis tends to get you off your duff, get you going.”

Prince said he was startled at the massive amount of destruction wrought by Rita.

“It overwhelmed us,” he said. “When we first came in here, we saw homes in huge piles. There was so much destruction. ... I’m guessing there are 400 homes here ... and probably up to a third or half of the homes have been destroyed. That’s quite a bit for a small town where everybody knows everybody and everbody’s related.”

Brown’s Market is the center of Hackberry. Before Rita, there were other stores in town, but now it’s the only one. It’s also the only gas station in town. Jimmy Brown has his ears to the ground and keeps the Cornerstone people in touch with those most in need. As Prince says, Brown “knows everybody.”

Gayle Chin of Livermore is a single mom with three children, the youngest 12, the oldest 19. In November, she was in between jobs and the timing was right for her to go to Hackberry with Cornerstone’s sixth group. She was the only woman to go, and during the trip she was invited to a monthly men’s Bible study in town.

She said it takes a spirit of wanting to give to others, because hard work is involved, and the accommodations are not even one star. The team sleeps on cots in classrooms at First Baptist Church.

“I helped clear debris,” Chin said proudly. “Trees had fallen from the storm and from the flooding. I didn’t get to use a chainsaw, but I moved the branches to the trucks. I helped with meals. We visited with people. Hopefully, we made a difference in their lives. It was a great experience. It was very fulfilling.”

Hackberry is in Cameron parish, considered among the most impoverished in Louisiana. It is Cajun country, and the shrimping industry dominates the region.Several boats were destroyed by Rita, but, oddly, the shrimping business has picked up since the storm as more shrimp seem to have been swept upstream in the Calcasieu River from the Gulf of Mexico. Oil is the other big employer in the region.

People who live in Hackberry generally have family in the area and have been there awhile. Life is slower, and people like it that way. Brown’s Market is the closest thing to a Starbucks, and yes he serves coffee.

Brown, 50, moved to Hackberry 27 years ago when he bought the market that bears his name. He grew up down the road in Cameron. In his lifetime, he’s never seen anything like what Rita wrought.

What has Cornerstone’s presence meant to the people of Hackberry?

“There are probably no words to describe it,” Brown says. “They’ve been working hard helping people. A lot of people just don’t know where to turn to. They’re filling the void with hope. That hope mostly is spiritual hope in the Lord. Their physical needs are being met. It’s been overwhelming.

“(The Cornerstone people) have big hearts. They’re willing to help. It’s such great sacrifices they’re making. They forsake everything they have there to come out and help. That’s a wonderful thing. They’re just being God’s hands is what they’re doing.”

Sunday, January 15, 2006

The roof and part of this house in Hackberry, La., was demolished by Hurricane Rita in September. At left is the trailer that the family lives in until their home is repaired.

Photo by Sara Linse

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Doug Mead Posted by Picasa

Getting ready

Two weeks ago, I made the decision to go to Hackberry, La., 12 miles north of vacation hot spot Holly Beach, La. A January vacation? Hardly.

Hackberry is a tiny little Cajun town that was devastated by Hurricane Rita in September. My church, Cornerstone, Fellowship in Livermore, Calif., adopted Hackberry shortly thereafter. (You can read my account in the Oakland Tribune in its January 15 edition at For the next four months, the church sent mission teams to aid the people of Hackberry. For the next four months, I wanted to go.

In December, Cornerstone sent 202 boxes back to families living in Hackberry by way of a tractor-trailer. The longing in my heart continued, but I could not break away from work or life. While I celebrated Christmas with my girlfriend and her son, I wondered what it was like to celebrate Christmas without a roof over your head, as many in Hackberry no doubt were doing.

In early January, I put a plan into motion to go to Hackberry, including writing stories for my employer. A few days later, the plan was approved for me to go to Cajun country Jan. 17-24 and build houses. Then my girlfriend, Susan, decided she wanted to go, too. We sent letters to our friends asking them to support our trip financially. The cost is minimal, about $300 for planefare to Houston, then we rent a van and drive three hours to Louisiana.

Since then, our lives have been hectic, trying to get ready to go. My 18-year-old son moved back in with me two weeks ago. I teach a Sunday school class, and the lesson for my substitute has to be prepared. Susan homeschools her 11-year-old son, and his daily lesson plans had to be prepared for him.

But just life in general. By last night, we were both exhausted. We agreed that this weekend would be a time of rest. Yet there is anxiety. What will our short-term mission trip be like? Having written my preview story for the paper, I already had a feel for this tiny burg. I look forward to meeting Mr. Jimmy and the people of Hackberry. I want to see what hundred-plus mph winds can do to a community.

OK, I'm not looking forward to sleeping on a cot. I have a bad back, and I have a fantastic bed at home. I'm being dedicated in the gym this week as preparation. We'll be eating our meals out of a tiny kitchen at First Baptist Church in Hackberry. We'll be doing manual labor all day. For the week we're going, they asked for people with roofing experience. The only experience I have with roofs is standing on a few and jumping off a few (it's a kid thing).

When we put our applications in to the church, they asked our skills. I quickly put down that I actually do own a hammer and a few assorted tools. I have leather work gloves. But I stressed that I'm an excellent chef. I used to own a small catering business that featured Mexican food. After I got approved I went through the dozens of cookbooks on hand at the newspaper (I work in the Living and Food departments) and found an Emeril Lagasse cookbook on Cajun food.

We will not be visiting New Orleans on this trip, nor Commander's Palace, where Emeril got his start in New Orleans. There may be a sandwich place in Hackberry, but that's about it. I'm hoping for one meal of a po-boy at some shrimp shack.

That cookbook will be packed in my lone suitcase. I looked jump local favorites, jambalaya, gumbo (Hackberry is a shrimping industry town), sweet potato pie, red beans and rice on Mondays, pecan pie, corn bread, sweet tea. Yum.

Tomorrow is our team's first meeting, in which we get more info about our trip. Susan and I are excited about going. She will be taking pictures for the blog. Both of us have always wanted to take short-term missions trips but have never been able to go. We're looking forward to 10-hour days, getting up before the crack of dawn, meeting the people of Hackberry.

This blog is meant to show the human element about our trip. Who are these people we're helping? Why would people pick up and leave their lives for a week to help people have a continent away they've never met before. If some church somewhere, adopted every little town on the Gulf Coast that was ravaged by Rita, we wouldn't need government assistance. My church has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to the rebuilding of Hackberry. That's the way it should be. It's people helping people. Our desire is to show them how to depend on God, not the government.

Ten years from now, the government will be gone from this place, but God will still be here and the friendships we make on this trip will last a lifetime.