Lessons Learned From Our New Orleans Mission Trip – “Katrina Wasn’t Even the Worst of It…”

It feels more often than it probably actually is but I feel that our mission trips need to respond to why we invest so much in meeting people’s physical needs “when it’s their spiritual lives that only really matter”. For me, that is very flawed statement on a number of levels but I think I understand what people are trying to say. Why help rebuild someone’s home and not share with them the hope of Jesus? It’s like saying, “I hope you enjoy going to hell in a nicer home.” Know that I, nor any sincere Christian I know, don’t actually feel that way.

But here’s what works for me. I have a hard time “compartmentalizing” life into the categories of “spiritual life”, “physical life”, “social life”, etc. They only work in terms of abbreviation and frankly, I am not always sure where my “physical life” ends and my “spiritual life” begins. That said, it’s easy for me to see how my physical well-being/state/condition affects the hazy, extremely subjective idea of my spiritual well-being/state/condition. And vice-versa. For example, when I feel physically drained, it’s less likely that I feel spiritually joyful and excited and ready to go to a Hillsong worship concert. In that instance, i’d prefer to take a nap. This is not to say that your spiritual state is entirely determined by your physical state but they certainly relate to each other. At least, that’s how I see it (and I suspect this is true for most of us after a bit of consideration).

So back to mission trips. One day Aaron and I went to see about picking up some wood from a family that was offering to donate it. We stopped at the house, knocked and a sweet southern grandmotherly woman opened the door. After the pleasantries, she offered to show us the shed and on the way she complained about the weeds, the bugs, and the mess that the backyard was in (A bit of a long story but she had rented her home to out to people Aaron knew). As she complained, I felt the need to repress my judgment of her. I mean after all we had seen, if weeds in your garden are among your chief complaints, then you may have it pretty good. Of course I knew that when we complain over trivial matters, it’s usually a front for deeper, more hurtful pains but the story works better if I just tell you that I was annoyed by her annoyance. Anyway, after finding the wood, we decided that we’d bring some students the next day to haul it off.

The next day we showed up, I knocked on the door to announce our presence but secretly hoped she wouldn’t be home (the shed was unlocked and it was very hot out). I even imagined that she may had hoped that we wouldn’t show – it would give one more thing to complain about. But when she opened the door, there were smiles from me, from her, even the weeds waived hello. The kids unloaded from the van and we created an assembly line and I was in the shed being bit by mosquitos and bugs that had mutated from who knows what but they seemed to be reneging on the offer of the wood.

We finished up, students loaded into the van and I wanted to say good-bye and thank her on behalf of Aaron and the Gathering Church. When I did so, she revealed that she had no idea who Aaron was or the church. And then it began, a real conversation, not about tenants or weeds or the heat but about life, about recovering from Katrina, about unhealthy loved ones and and about grief. Doris told me that the water had flooded 8 feet of their home and they were so lucky to have salvaged it. But after the water receded and the home was gutted, they left their home to stay with an elderly family member and have been renting out their house for the last 3 years.

I tried to encourage her but then she said, “But Katrina wasn’t the worst of it” and she started bursting into tears. We had crossed a point of no return here. Students were already in the van, I was on the porch being bitten by more bugs, and now had made an elderly woman cry. I asked her what she meant by that and she told me that just less than a year after the hurricane, her 9 year old grand-daughter was killed in a parade by the float she had just jumped off of. She was assigned the job of handing out flyers and when she tried to hop back on the float, she slipped …

My heart broke and I listened to the whole story. About how she would have been turning 13 this year. About how all this happened in front of her parents who had been following the parade. About how the little girl’s dad held her until help came. About how she believed in God but she was just hurting so much.

Eventually it was my turn to say something other than, “Well gee sorry to hear all that – thanks for the wood.” So I asked her if I could pray with her. Afterwards she asked me what I did for a living. I explained. Which of course began another conversation that centered on hope and the significance of Jesus. I shared briefly about that my family had gone through tragedy too, and just recently mourned the loss of a dear uncle. I told her that I knew it wasn’t the same but in the pain, I was reminded again the importance of life and the resurrection of Jesus and the hope he offers for now and for eternity.

She hugged me. We said our goodbyes and I reminded her about Aaron, the Gathering Church and mentioned that they have a professional counseling ministry. And then I was on my way. I remember being affected by that though. Sometimes when you are the group leader, you don’t get to engage because you expend a lot of energy managing and staying ahead of the curve but I was really affected by the encounter. I forgot how to get back to the Gathering building, forgot about my mosquito bites, forgot to plan out how to pick up the Kids camp volunteers and I was grateful that Jim was driving.

I kept replaying the conversation, wondering if I had said things right. I have to admit, it surprised me how the conversation took a course of its own. It seemed easy enough, go to the house, pick up some wood from the lady that was annoyed by the weeds. Who knew. Once I regained my composure, I was really moved by how a such a simple act of picking up wood turned into a moment of expressing care. I don’t know how much different her life is from a stranger praying for her on her porch but it reinforced to me the need for making conversation and uncovering the needs of people in our communities. To me, this is an enormous part of the work of the Gospel and living missionally.

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