Friday, March 17, 2006

New Orleans: Job Accomplished

We stumbled onto a great hole in the wall restaurant in the French Quarter (Coops).

We spent the last two days back in the Ninth Ward in St. Bernard's Parish (click for photos). The north side of this district got 20 feet of water. We were on the south side working in a house that got five feet. We drove through the neighborhood that was next to the levee breach. I was wiped out - totally leveled and washed away in parts - just depris remaining. I got a picture of a house on top of a car.

The sad thing about this district is that there was a million gallon oil spill from the local refinery (Murphy Oil). Because the oil made all the homes toxic the local city can't take the garbage. But Murphy Oil won't take the garbage unless the home owner settles with them. So the homes that are gutted have all kinds of gross stuff in front of their homes for weeks and weeks. Rats and cats and dogs are feeding off the refuse. Very gross.

We worked our butts off the last two days! We are exhausted - but in a good way. Today it was 85 degrees and we put in the longest day yet. People were pretty wiped but stuck it out until the end.

When we "gut" a house we start by taking out the furniture and personal items. We didn't have to do that in the first house. Taking out this stuff was pretty emotional for some of us - just imagining the family and all of their loss. After that we strip the floor and ceiling molding, knock out the sheetrock and pull up the wood floor, lineoleum, whatever. I spent most of the morning ripping out kitchen cupboards and built-in dishwasher and stove/oven. Then I moved on to the bathroom where I beat out the tile around the tub and walls. I've got a bad elbow so Phil took over, then Tom. I think they were getting into it. Swinging a sledgehammer is pretty fun. I was jealous!

We head back tomorrow at noon. I want to take the team to Cafe du Monde for coffee and bignets. You can't leave New Orleans before doing that. We'll recap our experience and then head to Memphis for the night. One more entry tomorrow.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

New Orleans: Day Two

We finished our first house today then decided to take a peek at tomorrow's work before heading home. It's in the, now famous, ninth ward- one of the hardest hit areas.

As soon as we crossed the river we saw what we hadn't seen so far - devastation. Yesterday I talked about the internal damage to homes. In the ninth ward there are homes off their foundation, shrimp boats in neighborhoods and we saw an in-ground, concrete swimming pool in someone's front yard. Not sure how that happened.

But when we got to our house it had already been gutted by another team earlier this week. So I don't know where we'll be tomorrow.

The ninth ward is a large area, probably two miles or more east to west and a mile north to south. It's homes and shopping centers. It looks like a war zone. Just about every business is boarded up - whole shopping centers. And the neighborhoods are mostly deserted. People have moved to live with relatives or friends. We talked to one family that was back just to clean up then they are leaving. They don't have any neighbors that are staying. It's all very weird. I don't see any answers to this other than to bulldoze acres and acres. The ninth ward had an oil spill contaminating the floodwaters, so I don't see how people can even consider rebuilding. I guess when that's all you have, you do what you have to do.

We've talked to a few people but no dramatic encounters. Still two days to go. But I really think the best encounters so far are within the team. I'm really enjoying getting to know everyone and working hard together. It's a great experience and something that I know will serve as a model for the rest of Cedarbrook.

I'm taking the crew out for some Cajun food tomorrow so I won't be writing again until Friday. Thanks for your interest and prayers for us.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Live from New Orleans we are. I'm reporting in.

We made it down through incredible storms. We hit hail in Illinois and the temperature went up 30 degrees after that. Very weird. Ribs in St. Louis then on and off torrential downpours yesterday. We arrived to a very humid 78 degrees and a traffic jam. That surprised us. We had heard that New Orleans was a ghost town. Not least not on the freeways. They are packed solid.

Our hotel is a big gym with 80 air mattresses. Comfortable. Good food. Nice hosts (Samaritan's Purse). We went through an orientation this morning and finely got to our house project around 11am. More surprises. We were braced for horror but if it wasn't for the piles of wood outside of some homes, and the porta-potty's on every other street corner, we'd never suspect a problem just driving down the street. If you turn off into a neighborhood you start to see what's wrong. Big trees uprooted. Houses boarded up or covered with blue tarps. The absence of normal life. Contractors looking for their assignment. You can't really tell things are wrong on the outside (in our neighborhood, that is).

Our house was a small two bedroom. We were told that we'd probably have to shovel out a foot of mud and carry out personal belongings but neither were true. The house was empty and no mud. But it was clear that there had been water up to the ceiling. Mold was growing all over and the ceiling had fallen in in the bedroom. The neighbor told us that two people had to be rescued by cutting holes in their attics after being stranded for days.

Our 14 members jumped into the work. We've got a great team. Everyone seemed to know where to go and what to do. It's not rocket science. We pull down everything but the studs and floor boards! Lots of dust and it's full of contaminants because the water is full of who knows what (oil, chemicals, sewage, etc.). We wear Tyvek suits with repirators and goggles. We look like a cross between aliens, astronauts and KKK members.

We sweat like dogs but thankfully the weather was like Wisconsin in the spring today; 72 degrees, low humidity and a nice breeze to cool us off. Another surprise.

I'm falling asleep writing this. I don't usually work this hard writing sermons and meeting people! You get the gest. I'll write again tomorrow if things change. We should finish our house tomorrow and move on to a new one.

Pray for us. Safety. Teamwork. Divine encounters. Oh, one funny thing. Most of the other 65 people here are college kids. Our team is feeling reeaaallllly old but at least they have lights out at 9:30pm. Works for me!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Headed to New Orleans

I leave in a few hours for New Orleans with a team of 14 people from Cedarbrook. I'm excited and a bit nervous at the same time. I've never gone on a trip with so many unknowns. And if anything goes wrong, I don't know how much help there will be around us (stores, gas stations, hospitals, etc.).

But beyond a desire to help others in crisis, I'm going to help Cedarbrook and I'm going to help myself. I'm convinced that the essence of the human condition is selfishness and the only way to address that is to go at it head on - by serving others. (Sorry if that sounds a bit negative but I really think it's true. Self love blocks a lot of good things from happening in our relationships and in the world in general).

Our selfishness is so pervasive - so much a part of who we are - that it's hard to escape. We even serve others to benefit ourselves!

Serving others is something that everyone talks about doing but rarely gets to. I know that's true for me. At best we fund others to serve, which IS a good thing, but we have trouble finding the time to actually do it ourselves. It's so much easy to pay someone else!

I don't have time to go to New Orleans. I'm just doing it and letting everything else suffer because I felt I had to make it a priority - for my own good and the good of the church.

Serving strikes at the heart of our condition because it reveals our selfishness. Our team might leave today full of good will toward men, but I know that it won't take long before we are inconvenienced. It will be hard work. We won't all get along. The living conditions will be substandard. The food may be poor. And that's only the first day!

Add seven more days to that and you start to see how spoiled you really are. You aren't the all loving, all compassionate person you thought you were. Serving shines a spotlight on your heart and then it shines a spotlight on where you need to turn to find a well of love, compassion and strength. That well is God. And that's why people who serve regularly are different. They are in touch with their own weaknesses and they are usually in touch with God's grace.

I hope that happens with us this week. And I hope it begins a pattern in both my life, the lives of our team and the life of Cedarbrook.

Stay tuned. If I can get internet access I hope to post a journal of our trip here.