I could just quote from the book of James and be done here. I belong to a church that quotes James and adds to what James had to say, even when some of the members have never read the book. Most of the loud-colored work T-shirts worn on mission trips quote Philippians 4:13. Yes, we can do all things through Christ who gives us strength, but Paul is praising the Philippians in their generosity in helping him. Paul just talked about the good times and the bad times. He talked about suffering persecution and being hungry. Those times require strength. The verse can stand alone, because when we need God’s strength to take action to show God’s love, He will give us the strength.
When I went on a mission trip, I didn’t get one of the extremely bright T-shirts to advertise how wonderful our church was. I got a blue T-shirt from Presbyterian Disaster Assistance (PDA), but then, we almost didn’t go down for Hurricane Katrina relief at all.
When Hurricane Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, I was moved to help. I was the leader of the Evangelism team. I suggested to our pastor that we organize a team to go down and muck out houses in Mississippi. That is, the houses that were still standing. Independently, another lady, who had been born in the Mississippi Delta area south of Memphis, TN, expressed the same concerns. She had two sisters who lived in Pascagoula and were affected by the hurricane. She was going to go regardless. The preacher said that the chairwoman of the Mission team was out of town, and he would pass the word on.
The next week, the pastor announced at the worship service that the rumors of our church assisting in disaster relief after Katrina were false. It is official, we will not go. Obviously, since it wasn’t the chairwoman’s idea, it wasn’t worth doing. A week later, the pastor announced at the worship service that the chairwoman had had an epiphany. Her new idea, which no one else had ever thought of, was that we should go down to help the people in Mississippi, but not now. She wanted to help build, not risk injury and disease doing the mucking out operations. Mucking out was dirty work that led to scratches and cuts that got infected due to the unsanitary conditions. Now that the charade of going, not going, and then going was over, the team started to form. There was talk about going to Florida instead (posed by the chairwoman), but after those from Mississippi threatened to back out, we were on our way to Gautier (pronounced Go-Shay), MS.
I envisioned working alongside the home owner, so that I could share the Good News while we were working. It didn’t work out that way. The owner appeared the first day to give us the key and then reappeared the last day to see if we had done anything. Our instructions were on a piece of paper, the work order. We had almost completely finished the sheet rock and painted two rooms. We had to decide on our own regarding color, since the owner did not answer the contact phone number. When we smelled a combination of mildew and something burning, I discovered, and repaired, the wiring to an outside light fixture, caulked the fixture outside, and removed and replaced the wet insulation.
What I gained for the work was satisfaction that we had accomplished a lot. The man showed his appreciation, shedding a few tears. But I was in charge of the church’s Evangelism team, and my only contribution in that regard was a morning sermonette about not being afraid to share your faith while showing God’s love in action. Our team was one of about four in our campsite, and they loved the morning devotion that day, especially the seminary students from Princeton.
Over all, I was dissatisfied by the work experience, but I picked up stories. On one night, we went to a local church for vespers. At our church in PA, our Thursday night Bible Study was going through the Heidelberg Catechism, and here we were a thousand miles away, going to vespers where one question of the Heidelberg Catechism was asked and the pastor elaborated on the answer. His talk was really a ‘thank you’ to us for our work. We had been fed by the church. The servers were a middle-aged couple with smiling faces. The pastor said that during the hurricane, a couple had ridden out the hurricane in their home. The home was on stilts. They thought they would be above any storm surge, but not the Katrina storm surge. Their furniture was slammed by the waves against the leeward side of the house. They barely survived. Everything was ruined or lost. Days later, PDA showed up. He was confused. He hadn’t submitted a work order. He didn’t believe in God. But he accepted the help. A neighbor, who went to the Presbyterian Church, had seen how depressed and lost he was after the storm, and filled out the paperwork for him without letting him know. As a result of showing God’s love to a stranger, the stranger accepted Jesus into his heart. In fact, the smiling couple that served us supper that night was the couple who had not believed in God before Katrina, and had not asked for, but accepted help. Love in Action had changed their minds and touched their souls.
Another story was told by the pastor that night. In Biloxi, MS, a couple near the beach had ridden out the storm, enduring the flooding of their home. The storm had done something to them psychologically. Instead of leaving the house and seeking help or simply looking for fellow survivors, they assumed, due to the lack of noise outside, that they were the only survivors. They couldn’t even hear birds singing. They huddled in the kitchen, eating what little canned food they had left. With that about gone, they resolved that they would end their lives. They had heard no noise outside in days. They had lost track of how long they had held on. Everyone else was gone. They should go too. Suicide was the only answer. At that very moment, there was a knock at the door. They went to the front and answered the door. It was a smiling face of a twenty-something wearing a PDA T-shirt. Without saying hello, the young man said, “Ma’am, Sir, if you’ll step aside, we are here to muck out your house.” The couple was dumbfounded. They stepped aside. Hope had returned to their lives. A large group of young people removed the mildew-covered walls and ripped out the wet insulation. Other than yelling to their friends for assistance or giving instructions, no one talked. They were working too hard.
Finally, the house sat as an empty shell containing the outer siding and with bare studs instead of walls inside and the flooring gone. The young man who had first knocked on the door turned to the owner of the house. He told the owner that he had to sign the work order that the owner had filled out to show that the work was now done. As he was giving instructions on how to fill out the next work order for people to start rebuilding his home, the owner interrupted, “But young man, I never filled out any work order. We aren’t Presbyterians. What are you talking about?”
The young man smiled and showed the owner the work order. The owner said, “But Son, this isn’t my work order. You have the wrong house. You are supposed to be two blocks over.”
But the young man knew that he was at the right house. God had saved the lives of the owners of a house by leading the PDA team to a house on the wrong block.
As people start to put their lives together after Hurricane Harvey, remember that after Katrina ripped through Mississippi and Alabama and Louisiana, over ninety percent of the rebuilding of the area in the first six months was done by churches from all over the country, many living in tent cities as we did. They will soon be arriving; some are probably already there.
And God will be at work in Texas and Louisiana in the lives of the people needing help and in the hearts of those willing to help.
To God be the Glory, great things He has done.