Gulf Trip 2008
Reflections Sunday, April 13, 2008

A week's worth of "reflections" have been piling up in my mind since returning from my first trip to Pearlington, MS. I am still overwhelmed by the scope of what I saw - both the destruction of natural and man-made creations, coupled with the enormity of the recovery efforts still in progress. Although many have been able to pick up their lives again, move into newly built or rebuilt homes, businesses and schools, SO much is left to be done. I now know that part of my mission includes telling the stories I heard during this trip to those who can help make a difference once they hear that Katrina's damage wasn't confined to New Orleans, and it will take YEARS to help these people re-establish themselves. And that's only if WE volunteer to give - time, money, effort, prayers.

It was beautiful to experience God's love for ALL His people as we prayed and shared meals together in the Southern Missionary Baptist Church each lunchtime. It was a time for tears and laughter, and from my perspective: HOPE. Hope for the future, and hopes fulfilled. A time to acknowledge that the Lord is in control over all things, past, present, and future. The inner strength of individuals I met was encouraging to ME. Pure faith, without all the trappings that people add to clutter the simple truth of God's constant love and ready forgiveness, was evident daily. I saw it in my co-workers, in our leaders, in people from that church, in homeowners, in shopkeepers, in fellow volunteers from across the country. It was a week of worship, with a hammer and a paintbrush, on a ladder.

I was told that after this trip, I would feel that I received more than I gave. It is true. It was a humbling emotional high. Now, with the passing of time, I sense a contentment settle in my soul because I was privileged to witness and participate in corporate obedience to the Lord's command to Love Thy Neighbor as Thyself. How do we prove to the Lord that we love him? Feed My Sheep, He said. I hope that the recipients of our physical labor realize that only the Spiritual lasts forever. Even the structures that we built can be lost again. But the relationships that we built, in His love, will indeed weather the storms of time. What a grand reunion we hope to experience some day. . . in the presence of the One who sent us on this mission. Praise Jesus!

- Linda Thompson

PDA? Wednesday, April 9, 2008

April 9, 2008

Yesterday afternoon and evening, I attended a meeting of Albany Presbytery at its headquarters in Watervliet. I was a voting elder delegate for our Brunswick Church congregation. Following supper, we had a "Speak Out" time, where anyone can go up to the mic for one minute and "hold forth" on anything they want to. I was about to go up and say a little something about our trip last week to Pearlington but noticed that Marcia Etu from Bay Road Presbyterian was already in line. As she had been in a large group from her church serving in Pearlington during the previous three weeks, I correctly assumed that she'd be saying something about the work down there.

Before last week, I suppose the two things that the letters "P D A" meant to me were "public display of affection" and "personal digital assistant" (one of which I took with me on the trip!). But looming much larger for me now is PDA as "Presbyterian Disaster Assistance". I think in some ways, Hurricane Katrina put this PDA "on the map". They are at the forefront of the recovery efforts all throughout Mississippi and Louisiana. While it has certainly been gratifying seeing the efforts of the whole Church (capital C--Body of Christ) to help those in need in that disaster's aftermath, I must say that last week what I saw and experienced made me particularly proud of the Presbyterian church (a small chunk of that capital C Church). In years when news stories generated by presbyterians have been marked mostly by dogfights over the issues of sexuality and church ordination standards and over the authority of Scripture itself and the nature of Christ, it was refreshing to be part of something concerned only with helping our "neighbor", without regard to race, color, creed, politics or anything other than pure need.

So, I guess right now, I'm using my PDA (personal digital assistant) to give a PDA (public display of affection) for the PDA (Presbyterian Disaster Assistance). Three cheers!

Sal Scecchitano

Tending to the branches Sunday, April 6, 2008
Tending to the branches

In John 15:5, Jesus said, “I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” This week, this group of people formed many branches upon which much fruit grew. We worked at eight different work sites. We saw examples of the destruction that sit today much as they did in the days after Katrina. We saw new homes being built, old ones being fixed and debris being removed. The members of my team have many stories to tell and the hearts that will nudge them to do so. Though I could argue that the logistics and organizing of these trips is monumental, the only truth is that my job is simple. God has nudged me to introduce people to Pearlington and then He and Pearlington do the rest.
I see a lot of things on these trips. Still the ones that stick with me almost always involve witnessing the breakdown of expectations and the way God replaces those expectations with love and acceptance. As I moved about my days on this trip, I often heard one of my team members telling someone the story of this mission, the story that I think of as my own, to someone else. In any other area of my life, I might have felt like saying, “Hey, what are you talking about? You have been here all of 15 minutes and already you’re the expert on Pearlington?” This is not the case when it comes to this mission. I can only pray that God will bring someone to this place that I have found. In this place, you HAVE to tell your stories. In this place, you wonder each day if Miss Henrietta or Mr. Quinette has moved back into their homes. You wonder if Lindsey and John have gotten their walls painted. In this place, you find ways to arrange work schedules and daily routines so that you can go back to Pearlington on the next trip. In this place, you never forget what you have seen or who you have met in this wonderful small town.
On this trip, I have to offer many prayers of thanksgiving. I traveled to Pearlington with a wonderfully diverse group of individuals. I witnessed people who embraced a camp life that is – well – less than posh. I watched driven individuals with professional skills pull back and mentor their unskilled teammates with gentleness and understanding. There were many moments that brought someone to tears and I watched as they were embraced by their teammates. We offered one another the support and care that is needed for us to recognize our weaknesses and overcome them. Each one of us grew in some way. There are new bonds and new understandings of ourselves and the world we live in.
For me as a leader, I wondered why God has chosen to work through me. I was unsure of my qualification for this service. The size of the group and the fact that at any given time, we were working on four different worksites kept me circulating from site to site – transporting people and supplies, doing pickups, medical runs and water drop-offs. For much of the time, I was alone in a van driving around town. It was a lonely week for me. I did not get my hands dirty and I did not have a site to call my own. It took me a couple of days to put these feelings in perspective. As the team grew in affection for this town and started working their sites, I realized that my responsibilities that week were allowing that to occur. My contribution was not as tangible as a wall or wonderful meal or a house full of blinds. My contribution was to create an environment for my teammates to experience the Pearlington that I know. My contribution allowed my teammates to bring their homeowners one step closer to being in their homes. My contribution humbled me.
One afternoon, as I drove between sites, I took a detour down a road that has yet to be worked on. The homes were devastated and some were abandoned. I sat in the van and sobbed. I did not cry because of the devastation. I cried because I had just left a site where Sal Scecchitano and Joe Fritz led a group of people who were continuing the framing work on a brand new home. Brunswick Church and Terra Nova Church and the friends we bring with us are making an impact on the people of Pearlington. So, I will continue leading teams to Pearlington. I will continue to work to create an environment where each team member can contribute. I know what my contribution is and I have come to realize that there is no reason for me to be lonely. I am never alone in that van. Jesus is riding right beside me.
Please pray for Pearlington. Pray for her people. Please pray for those among us who are feeling called to join the next team and if you have a prayer left over, send it my way so that I may continue this work. You see, Jesus has asked me to tend to some branches…
- Colleen Lais

There’s something about Pearlington…. Saturday, April 5, 2008
There’s something about Pearlington….

Today we left Pearlington, Mississippi. We didn’t have time to be melancholy with last minute photos or heartfelt good byes. We all awoke abruptly to the knock on our pod door at 3:20 am saying it was time to pack up and head out as soon as possible. Most of us were planning on waking before dawn as our flights were early morning. What we didn’t plan on was evacuating the camp due to extreme weather conditions. As we all tried to sneak in a little sleep before starting our journey back home, Jeremy Davis, one of the PDA camp managers, kept vigil during the night listening to the weather station for updates on the storm and when the flood warning and threat of large hail became a concern, he felt it best for us to head out. Jeremy led our caravan on an alternate route to the highway that leads to New Orleans so we could avoid the flooded roads. On our way to the airport, we all shared our thoughts on the intensity of this storm. Most of us commenting that we have never seen rain that heavy, voicing our fears that our pods would collapse with the pounding rain or commenting on never witnessing such a continuous lightening and thunder storm which appeared to settle directly over our volunteer village. The storm and tornado warnings were ominous to us. Can you imagine, for a minute, what it must have been like to endure Hurricane Katrina?

It is more than two and a half years later and we still see evidence of the hurricane’s destruction on every street we pass; a memory of what once was. This week we’ve had the opportunities to stand on lots where homes used to be, assist people in rebuilding their homes, and offer encouragement and support while people continue to rebuild their lives.

As I reflect on my week, it is full of good memories and occasions to serve. But what I enjoyed doing the most is listening to the stories; not only the stories of the people of Pearlington, but the stories that my team mates shared as well. I was “accused” on more than one occasion of asking questions that are “too deep” or “required too much thinking”. But I don’t mind, that’s part of who I am and that’s how I learn about people.

What I learned about people this week as I “interviewed” them is that they all have one thing in common. Hurricane Katrina may have come to the Gulf Coast to destroy homes and habitat, but it did not destroy the spirit within and that is the story and memory that people shared with me over and over. It is not what Katrina took from them but, instead what it gave. This storm allowed people to give of themselves and offer their hands to serve God; not just in the volunteers who faithfully listen to God’s call and come to Pearlington, but the people of Pearlington themselves. Pearlington is a witness to God and so full of evidence of His work…through others. I’m sure if you ask any one of our team members if they received more than they gave, you would hear a resounding yes. The fond memories spoke of involve people, not the destruction of the storm or the work done, but the relationships that are growing…relationship with the home owners, relationships with our own team mates and relationships with others from across the United States who have come to Pearlington.

Friday, I had the privilege of working at the home of Miss Henrietta Barnes, who I met and fell in love with on my first visit to Pearlington. Henrietta has her Certificate of Occupancy and at 83 years of age will be moving into her home next week. Henrietta’s presence just blesses anyone she is around. Henrietta continues to work daily, and I quote, “loving on the little ones” at a Head Start program with three year olds. Henrietta is confident in the purpose that God has for her and declares that the Good Lord gave her two arms to hug and she knows how to use them. Earlier in the week, one of our team helped Miss Henrietta locate a cross that had been misplaced. It was hung next to a framed copy of this prayer from a team that has also had the honor of meeting Miss Henrietta:

“Almighty and most merciful God, we gather here in your name to dedicate to you this house which was destroyed by the tempest, but by your grace is now restored to new life. It is the result of the love and concern for others, that you stirred within the hearts of strangers in far away places, that brings us to this happy occasion.

Father, we stand here now reassured of your presence in out lives, reassured that you care about us. As we are told in the scripture-‘I will never forsake you.’ and again we are told that ‘The builder of a house has more honor than the house, for every house is built by someone, but the builder of all things is God.’

Father, may this house be known and stir in the memory of those around, as this house that God put back together after the storm has passed.

And now we join together and ask for your special blessing on Henrietta Barnes as she goes forth in your service.

In the name of our Lord Jesus we pray. Amen

Pearlington, MS January 26, 2008

This prayer was written by John Pope of Destin, FL”

As we put the finishing touches on Henrietta’s house, helping to turn a house into her home it was evident that Miss Henrietta “loves on” all she meets. There’s just something about Pearlington, Mississippi that demonstrates God’s love to all through all.

-Susan Paige

The Last Day Friday, April 4, 2008
The Last Day

We just got back from the worksite for the fourth and final time this week. At this point the work is done, we have tonight for fellowship time, and then we will return home tomorrow. I am sitting in the camp as I write this and there is occasional clap of thunder. The forecast was calling for storms this evening including the possibility of tornadoes. Hopefully, they will not come. This week, I spent the first day and a half installing electrical outlets and switches. Then my group went to go to a house that needed some framing work done. At this house, we built a few interior walls, did some sheathing, installed windows, and also did a few other random tasks. I was a bit surprised when I found myself laying out studs - a task that I had done once prior on a much smaller scale, but the walls eventually went up. (one did have to be taken down and shortened since we were unaware the studs were too long - and nobody measured them. I will never make that mistake again.) The man that was managing the construction of the house - Glenn was an interesting character. He runs an organization which is helping to rebuild Pearlington. I had taken him as a local who was serving his community, but he really came here on a mission trip and never left. He has been in Pearlington for well over a year and is continuing to live in a trailer on the football field while rebuilding the houses of others. He was serving as a minister in his church in Tennessee and brought a group down and just did not feel that his church was supporting his calling, so he remained here to work until the town is rebuilt. It is just inspiring to see how one person is answering the call of God and using it to the service of this community. Here is someone who left his life dropped everything and came here. He shared with our group that people have given up on responding to Christian witnessing. I responded that he was providing a far stronger witness than any preaching - he is living a life of service. This community is slowly coming back, having been through a challenge that nobody would ever want to go through. There has been hurt, there has been loss, but there is recovery, and it is such an honor to be a tiny part of it.
In 24 hours, I will be back home, wearing dry clothes and sleeping in my own bed. While I am looking forward to reacquainting myself with the creature comforts of home, this place will always have a place in my heart. I can see why people are willing to come here to minister to Pearlington. And yet, I will be bringing back far more than I left here. I came to serve, to build, to work. I did that, but I received the experience of a community - actually two communities. The temporary one that is reestablished every week with a new batch of volunteers and the community we are rebuilding here. The daily lunches at the First Missionary Baptist Church. The leaders of volunteers at PDA and Pearlington and the people here who are still braving the elements in their FEMA trailers who are patiently waiting to move into their rebuilt houses.
- Joe Fritz

The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away Thursday, April 3, 2008
The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away

Blessed be the name of the Lord. As I sit here writing my first blog ever, these words come to mind, for I am sitting in the mess tent of a Katrina Relief Village - my home-away-from-home shared with volunteers from across the U.S. Although it is difficult to put into words the myriad sights, sounds, smells, conversations, emotions, and revelations I've experienced during my first visit to post-Katrina New Orleans and surrounding areas, I feel like I could actually talk or right about all this for hours!!

A common thread I have picked up from the voices of locals, from home owners to business folks is tri-fold: one strand of gratitude for all the volunteer efforts, one strand of hope for the future, and one strand of frustraton and wonder at feeling forgotten by the rest of the country. Admittingly, as an "outsider," I had no real ideas of the scope of the devastation nor the tremendous amount of work yet to be completed. Now, I have seen the tip of the iceberg and am humbled by the forces of nature that our Lord created. Yet people to counter the effects of such calamity are even greater.

As bad as singular tragic events are: house fires, car accidents, job loss - these people have lost neighborhoods, whole vllages, infrastructure, businesses, schools - entire ways of life. It is beyond my comprehension, even after seeing this for myself. And now, almost three years later, people are STILL waiting for a semblance of normalcy. Some still live in a type of limbo, with encouragement waxing and waning. But as a homeowner told us tonight: our help, our presence, our gifts of time and energy and love bring back their sense of hope and encouragement. In turn, their fortitude and strong faith - still being forged in the furnace of adversity - give ME hope that no matter what the Lord allows in our lives, He goes through it with us in spirit, and in the bodies of believers. We are His hands and feet. It's been a royal privilege to serve our King by serving those He loves.

- Linda Thompson

The reward is much greater than the offering Wednesday, April 2, 2008
The reward is much greater than the offering

The reward is much greater than the offering.

I know all of my teammates would agree with that statement after our return from the First Missionary Baptist Church of Pearlington. This is an establishment where Reverend Rawls "screams" his prayers and hymns like a true man of the Lord. His passion truly takes your breath away.

As I awoke this morning I remember saying to myself "this, so far, has been a lot of fun," then I remember saying, "This might be one of the most fun weeks I've had" and if you know me, I have lived a pretty fun-filled life. However, as much fun as I thought I was having, I couldn't imagine what the day would bring.

There are few moments in a person's life where you can actually feel the Lord walk beside you and place his hand on your shoulder and whisper in your ear, "Bless you for what you have done." These are long and hard days. They are not easy. They are not vacation-like. Actually, going to work and staying in our everyday routine is easier. It's been fun because the get is much greater than the give.
Even though we have moved into rebuilding other families' houses, as a team, our hearts are still with Miss Henrietta and her daughter, Miss Kitty. We want them back in their homes. They lost their homes to a terrible storm...a storm that has made us all stronger. Miss Henrietta and Miss Kitty, 83 and 64 respectively, both widows, still go to work everyday. All they have is is family and now, because of that storm, they now have us. We've been praying for them to get in their homes since October. We have hammered nails, painted, cleaned and sweated to try and make this possible for them. They are on their own and could not make this happen. We, on the other hand, could.

Miss Henrietta and Miss Kitty attended Reverend Rawls' service with us tonight and it was a night we will never forget. We have persevered through rough days and changed these two lives forever. They have perservered through rough days and changed our lives forever. The feeling when these two women hold your hand, look you dead in the eye, and say "Thank you!" is the greatest reward I have ever received. As Miss Henrietta rose to thank us at the service, I felt a hand on my shoulder and a whisper in my ear. No matter where the Lord takes me in life, these two women are embedded in my heart. Miss Henrietta, we met you for a reason - the reward you have given to us is far greater than the merit of our offering. Thank you and God bless you!

- Joseph Carbonaro

Grateful Heart Tuesday, April 1, 2008
Grateful Heart

With a grateful heart, I praise the Lord and thank all who helped me to come here and experience the many joys and sorrows of being a part of this Pearlington mission trip. The faithful servants of our team and the other teams here have provided fellowship opportunities that I'll be sure to want to continue. I can't tell where the lump inside of me begins and ends. As I try to find a way to describe what happens here, the rain is pouring down. I find myself worrying about whether Linda is safe right now. You see, she is a local woman whom I met today while serving lunch. As many hungry people filed through the line to the tables to eat, Linda headed toward me to wrap her plate. She was anxious to return to her place because a couple men were working there. I heard again the typical comments down here about the government. Just like everyone else, she was relying on local townspeople to help her rebuild from scratch. She wanted to be back there to eat because she didn't want the men to think she would not help or was unappreciative.

Tears, laughter and praise to the Lord were exchanged as Linda stood there, holding her plate of food for at least 15-20 minutes with me, sharing her story. She is a Katrina survivor who lost it all. The hurricane took 98% of all she owned and looters took the remaining 2%. "How could someone see all that we lost and then take what little was left?" she asked. At a loss to provide any reason at all, we let the tears roll for a moment and she said, "I had to do something and I just couldn't cry anymore." Through laughter came hope and she is still rebuilding with hope and gratitude. Gratitude for our help and that God did not take her that day, but began to heal her instead. She said she still didn't know why she survived or what her purpose in life is now. My immediate thoughts? I shared:*He spared her because He loves her.

* ...because she is a special person.
*He has a plan for her.
*...and if nothing else, she is here now - to share her story - and I for one, am very glad. I'm glad He gave her hope. I was blessed to have met her and honored to share her story. She lets us know we really are making a difference here in Pearlington, Mississippi, but these folks still need so much help. At least they know that the PDA remembers and Brunswick remembers and the Lord has not foresaken them - He has brought us together.

First Church of the 5th Sunday Monday, March 31, 2008
First Church of the 5th Sunday

   March is going out like a lamb in Pearlington, though we heard not so much back home in Brunswick. Today was our first full day of work and it felt good to get in gear and get going. Yesterday was a very different Sunday for me. Normally, I'm "on duty" from 7:30am to 12:30pm as Music & AV Director at my church. There's a bit of a peculiar culture down here in Mississippi with regards to Sunday morning worship at least among the Baptist churches, one of which we were hoping to go to. It seems that some of them hold worship on the 1st and 3rd Sundays of the month and others hold it on the 2nd and 4th Sundays. Astute observers of the calendar no doubt noted that yesterday was the 5th Sunday of the month! We couldn't find any church whose sign indicated that they worshipped on the 5th Sunday. Not to be daunted, we simply returned to our PDA Camp site and whipped up our own service. We called ourselves the "First Church of the 5th Sunday" - worshipping religiously 4X per year!
   Our gang of 22 is doing quite well together! I was in a group of 5 that went today to the home of Mr. Quentin Quinnette (a very rare double "Q" name). We did floor tiling and electrical work all day. Joe Fritz and I were tasked to install all the outlets and switches in the newly-refurbished home. Quentin is a very gentle and most thankful soul. Two and a half years after Hurricane Katrina, it's obvious both that recovery has taken place and much recovery is yet to be done. The spirit in this town is undefeatable, however. Today, like every other workday, lunch for all the work crews is provided at the First Missionary Baptist Church. Pretty amazing sight as these dear sweet ladies of the church provide all of us with a wonderful meal, including a number of convicts from the local jail, joining us on work furlough in the grey and green striped uniforms. There was a piano in the room and a bunch of hymnals. I gave way to natural instincts and sat down to play a hymn. Before long, a crowd had gathered 'round, was passing out hymnals and we just sang ourselves right out of lunch with some of the great "second coming" hymns of the church. God is alive and at work in Pearlington, Mississippi.
Even so, "Come quickly, Lord Jesus!"

- Sal Scecchitano

Well, where to begin? Sunday, March 30, 2008
Well, where to begin?

   We all arrived safely. Plane rides were smooth, on time and we had no problems finding each other at the New Orleans airport despite coming in on three different flights. Then we got to Hertz. It's amazing that the Albany-DC leg of our flight took considerably less time than picking up ou four "confirmed" Plymouth Voyagers. Eventually, the Hertz folks found four suitably large vehicles and we were on our way, not a Voyager amongst us. Throughout the course of the day's travels, I could feel the team coming together, getting to know one another and opening up. You may wonder what 20 adults do outside of Hertz while waiting over an hour. Mostly look at cloud formations and see things, take pictures of each other, play with the photoelectric eye on the door and talk about the legendary Big Bopper (the ice cream sandwich - not the 50's rock legend). Since it was dark by the time we left Hertz and we didn't arrive at the camp until after 10pm, we quickly unpacked at the camp, found our pods and went to bed. I really had no idea what things would look like in the light of day.
   Sunday morning came warm and pleasant, if a bit buggy. A group from California served us breakfast and then several small groups headed off for walks around the town. You didn't have to walk far to see evidence of Katrina, but you could also see evidence of God's work being done by his people. Lots of new construction, many Katrina Cottages, but several homes are still untouched and abandoned. The beauty of the area is all around you. Nature seems to have recovered more quickly than the people. On our walk we met Dave, a fireman from the Philadelphia area. His group of firemen come down here a couple of times a year and cover for the local firemen so they can go work on their own homes. We also met Gidget, one of the town dogs. Her owner passed away and the local assistant fire chief looks after her, but Gidget seems to do a pretty good job of looking after herself. While walking the neighborhood, we met up with Miss Henrietta, whose home the team worked on last fall. The house is complete and needs only a refridgerator for her to move in.
   After a quick lunch several of the team headed off to tour the week's job sites. Meanwhile, some of us who have not been here before, took a drive to the Gulf. The road we traveled was right on the Gulf and you see beautiful sandy beaches for miles. Turn your face toward the land and you see million dollar beachfront properties with nothing on them except the 8-12' high pilings which used to support a home. Some had a few very beefy joists or the occasional steel I-beams still clinging to them, but that's about all. The height of the stilts and the size of the framing timbers didn't matter. Katrina took it all. The only things that seemed to remain in place were a couple large bank vaults. The banks themselves are long gone. Perhaps 1 in 10 of these seaside mansion sites has seen any reconstruction. Most lots have "for sale" signs in front of them.
   There is still much more to be done.

- Glenn Claydon

Hold the Presses!!! Friday, March 28, 2008
Hold the Presses!!!

Each time I plan a trip to Pearlington, I send out press releases to all the local media outlets. [Side note: The release I sent for this trip hit the inboxes on the exact same day that some guy was hogging all the limelight. What was his name? Spritzer? Spitzee? Something like that, but I digress.] Wanting to get a little bit of press is not a bragging-thing. It's an information-thing. I figure there are people out there who are reading the paper over breakfast who think that everything is back to normal along the Gulf Coast. An article about 22 individuals traveling to a small Mississippi town to continue the recovery might enlighten them. I was sad that no one seemed to find our story.

The other night, many members of our current team, some veterans and some freshman, were able to get together for a pizza party. During the party, we played a slideshow that featured the unofficial theme song of our last trip, "Praise You In This Storm" by Casting Crowns. All at once, everyone who knew the words started singing, eyes fixed on the screen. I remembered how passionately these folks can tell a story about their Pearlington experience. It suddenly occurred to me that we don't need to court the media. I was looking at a room full of reporters. In one week, there will be 22 new stories to tell about God's faithfulness and the wonder of His work in Pearlington. We are going to share some of them this week on this blog. Please check back often and perhaps a particular story will touch you. Feel free to "report" it to a friend or two.

The Spring 2008 Pearlington team offers prayers of thanksgiving for the support of so many that make these trips possible. Keep us in your prayers this week.

- Colleen Lais