To contribute, see Christus Victor Lutheran Church Hurricane Disaster Response, the disaster response location for the region around Ocean Springs.
One by one the cars pull into the long driveway leading to the Lutheran/Episcopal Distribution Center in Ocean Springs, Miss., their occupants hoping for a few days worth of food, hygiene and first-aid kits, laundry and dish detergent, and perhaps a pillow, blanket and set of bed linens.
Some vehicles are late model; some seem to be mechanically challenged. In many cases, whatever the condition their vehicle is now their most valuable material possession. Some drivers are alone. Many contain the representatives of two or more households. They have come not only from this Gulf Coast community but also from more distant points—Biloxi, Pascagoula, Moss Point—a half hour drive or more. To preserve expensive fuel, many drivers turn off their engines as they wait in lines that sometimes stretch 500 feet toward the street. They are told they may return every three days. No end is in sight. The recovery is anticipated to take another 20 months, probably more.
Before today, the news for visitors hoping for needed goods hasn’t always been good. Volunteers like me have had to say, “I’m really sorry. We don’t have that today.” On such days, the meager offerings include a comparatively small amount of food. Regardless of what is provided, at the end of the day the volunteers from Trinity Lutheran Church, Lansdale, Pa., tell their colleagues who’ve worked elsewhere that the center’s visitors are almost always thankful for the volunteers and what they receive. The volunteers tell of receiving grateful hugs, even when they feel they’ve done little in the way of service.
On this day, the news is supremely good. I’m among the half-dozen volunteers who unload a 28-foot truck of precious cargo—box after box of food including canned goods, cleaning supplies, toiletries—the items most frequently requested by visitors, many of whom lost every material possession to Hurricane Katrina. Such deliveries from around the country make a huge difference and are desperately needed. The delivery is personal too. The truck has come from Christ Lutheran Church, Kulpsville, Pa., a Katrina collection center near Lansdale. It contains donations from Trinity members and other congregations.
The items are quickly loaded onto skids and taken by forklift to volunteers, who organize them into bundles for distribution. Completed bundles are placed where “runners” pick them up, place them in shopping carts and deliver them to visitors in the front of the line.
I’ve seen or participated in the whole process today, serving at times as a runner but working mostly as an intake volunteer—greeting the visitors, assisting them to fill out a form for each household. “What is your name? How many are in your household? What is your weekly or monthly income? Are you a homeowner or renter? Did you lose your home in the storm, your livelihood? What can I do for you today?” Each household representative gives the intake person a list of needs. The form completed, a runner collects the goods inside the center. The Federal Emergency Management Agency requires the forms—and a FEMA case number from each visitor—to track victims and credit the distribution center for assisting victims.
Working in the hot Mississippi sun, I try to be diligent, polite, hospitable and helpful. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be storm survivor. I can’t imagine life as a single mom of two children who receives a meager $400 a month for child support under any circumstances, let alone these. I can’t imagine driving some of the vehicles I see—a sputtering old pickup truck, for instance. The visitors this day represent all kinds of backgrounds—white (like myself), African American, Latino and Asian. Katrina was an “inclusive” catastrophe.
One crowded sedan contains members of three households. I interview an African American woman in the back seat who tells me she is 76. “Where are you from?” she asks. I’m used to asking, not answering. “From Philadelphia, Pa.,” I say. She has waited in line for some time.
“That’s a long way from here. How far is it?” she asks.
“About 1,200 miles,” I said. I knew the answer because we were among a group that had driven to Mississippi over two days.
The woman smiled and squeezed my hand: “Thank you for coming all this way to help us. You didn’t have to do this.”
I thought for a minute, looked into her eyes, and said, “You’re welcome. Talking to you like this, I bet you would have done the same thing for me if you were in my position.”
She smiled again. “Yes,” she said, “the Lord wants us to help each other.”
It was a brief encounter. I don’t even remember the woman’s name, but her words haunted me: “You didn’t have to do this.”
I almost hadn’t come, but I was suddenly so thankful I had. I’ve wondered since: What if God had not sent his only Son, dear Jesus, to live among us, to die for us so our sins are forgiven, to love us so unconditionally? God didn’t have to do this.
But God decided to fill our deepest need with a peerless compassion. Because of that, the long lines of Katrina survivors and volunteers—and the rest of us—share a boundless gift of love that surpasses life’s storms.
© 2014 Augsburg Fortress, Publishers