When we turned onto 21st Street Monday morning, we had a journey behind us and a journey ahead. We had talked about the trip, and planned, and met and talked and met and planned. By seven fifteen on Monday morning many of our unknowns had been answered. We didn’t know quite what to expect when we got to the region, but we thought there would be obvious signs of destruction. We had worried about the heat and humidity that we were facing and about the mosquitoes that were sure to devour us. We didn’t know where exactly we would be sleeping or how we would manage meals. We knew little about the work we would be doing and less about whether we were really going to be able to do it. And we didn’t know each other all that well.
The Handsboro Presbyterian Church, where we stayed and ate and worshipped, is so similar to our church that it is stunning. It was founded in 1877. The current building was built in 1889. It’s about our size both in terms of the members and the buildings. There’s a church building, a Parish Hall, and a Manse. It all sits on Pass Road, as a vestige of a previous era in stark contrast to the traffic out front and K-Mart and Winn-Dixie that flank it.
The Parish Hall has been converted into a bunkhouse for volunteers. The bunkhouse is the upstairs where the Sunday school classrooms used to be. The bunks are towers of air mattresses on sheets of particle board supported by two-by-fours. The mattresses want for air and squeak every time one rolls over and the beds sway in the night like berths in the belly of a ship. The common room had a TV, which, after some work, managed to receive two fuzzy channels. Another Sunday school room had been converted to showers. Another to storage. It was all very basic, but as the week wore on, it felt increasingly like a luxury.
On Sunday we drove on Highway 90 from Gulfport to New Orleans with Erin as a tour guide. To be honest, things don’t look that bad, if you don’t know what you are looking for. Some of the houses look downright nice. They stand stately beside the road as though nothing has happened. Gone are the piles of debris for the most part. And hollow shells of businesses and homes have been filled in with new structures or removed. What is left, if you look closely into the fields of tall grass, are ghosts of houses that once were – a set of front porch steps leading up to nowhere, foundation slabs laying naked in the sun, vague outlines of where house after house after house once stood.
By some vestigial houses sit FEMA Trailers, little travel-trailers meant to be pulled behind the family vehicle for vacation. Two years later they have become semi-permanent housing for up to five people. In some places the FEMA trailers have congregated into herds where violence and corruption flourish.
There aren’t any more piles of cars and boats stacked under I-10 waiting to be crushed, and the French Quarter is in fairly good shape, but the Ninth Ward of New Orleans looks virtually untouched and is still marked by the storm with open roofs and broken windows and frames a kilter and spray paint still on the clapboard indicating that the house was checked by emergency responders and there were no pets inside and no people or some people or dead people.
As we approached 21st Street Monday morning we speculated that our house was the house on the corner with the brand new tan siding and solid roof. The yard was scraped flat by construction vehicles and the dark red Mississippi clay lay bare, bald of any grass or shrub. Those would come later. It was evident that everything about the house was new, the windows, the doors, and soon the drywall.
We rounded the corner and looked at the houses near it, commenting that they, too, needed some serious help. The one behind was a shell of house. Its brown walls seemed barely able to hold up its fractured roof. That it had not been torn down was almost more of surprise than that it was still standing. The little white house across the street was in pretty sad shape, too. The roof looked decent, but the windows were old to begin with and then rocked by the storm. The porch screens were torn, the trellis was falling down. The blue trim was so cracked it didn’t even bother to peal. Its yard was adorned with what had once been orderly shrubs and flowers that were now overgrown and unkempt. It looked like it could not make up its mind whether to be salvaged or to fall down right then and there.
The truck we were following to the sight drove past our tan house with the new siding and past the broken-down brown house and it parked right in front of the little white house, the home of Manie Ramsey.
Inside the front door we were greeted by large, pink rolls of insulation, bare studs all around us, and empty rafters over head. Our job was to insulate the attic and hang as much drywall as we could on the walls of the kitchen and three bedrooms and closets and the walls and ceiling of the large living room and the hallway that ran the length of the house. As the bulk of us mustered a game plan on 21st Street, Phil and Jim headed an hour out of Gulfport with some Pennsylvanian plumbers to work on the house of a young family who had fallen into an insurance loophole the week that their brand new house was destroyed by Katrina. The family had worked hard building a new house where their former new house once stood and Phil and Jim were there to help them with some details they could not do on their own.
With energy and excitement the other nine of us jumped into action. Half crawled up into the rafters to roll out the insulation, the other half handed it up. By a quarter of nine, and not a moment too soon as the heat of the day kicked in, the house was insulated and we turned to the drywall. At nine, Lockett Funeral Home behind the house opened so that we could have power to run the screw guns and the fan. We divided ourselves into teams to do the working of measuring and cutting the drywall, handing it up and attaching it. The hallway ceiling was first, followed shortly behind by the walls. One of the bedrooms was begun and by lunch, it was starting to look more like a house than a Lincoln log model.
It was stunning to see the transformation of the house. As the dark boards and yellow studs and pink insulation were covered by the white drywall, it became brighter, more hopeful. Our group was transforming, too. By the end of day one we were no longer nine individuals. We had become a team and subdivided ourselves into small working groups that together were achieving a large task. We came to the jobsite with varying skill levels. We had a professional and a darn near professional, some folks who had a little experience, and some folks who had no experience, but in the first moments of the first day, everyone found something to do or learned how to do something new. With the exception of being short on pencils and carpenters’ knives we worked pretty smoothly. If you’d walked in, you might have even thought we had done this before. We all were one, working together to accomplish the task as a group, as members of DMPC, for God.
Tuesday morning we got off to a running start. We sent our journeymen to the their sight to custom fit a house full of doors and be entertained by the spritely little girls they were meant to contain, and the rest of us headed back to Manie’s house excited to polish our newly acquired skills from the previous day.
When we broke for lunch we marveled at the work we had done and the heat of the day and the cooperation we had undertaken. We recounted heroic tales of nearly miscut board and learning to use the screw gun. We were just diving into our sandwiches when a car pulled up in front of the house.
A man got out from behind the steering wheel and from the passenger’s side emerged a tiny, little, teacup of a woman. She made her way slowly and not entirely steadily across the street and up the stairs and we all fell silent as we realize this was the woman for whom we were so eagerly working. We greeted Miss Mamie (not Manie as we had been told) and followed her into her house.
She told us that the house had been moved there the week she was born 85 years ago and about how it had weathered hurricane Camille in 1969 and about how she had ridden out Katrina in the back room. Her grandson Tyree told us about how Miss Mamie had taken in nearly 100 children, including himself, and raised them as her own because no one else would and he told us about how she took care of old people and people who were dieing providing them her own version of hospice in the very rooms we were repairing. And he told us that, while he was not a Christian, he could sure see God’s love and our faith through what we were doing so far from home for someone we did not know.
It didn’t matter whose house we were repairing, we were working hard. It wouldn’t have mattered had we never met Miss Mamie, we were prepared to serve her no matter who she was, but that being said, having met her and seen the strength of her 75 pounds and 85 years, and the kindness of her being, and the love and caring pouring forth from her, we were certainly invigorated for the monumental task ahead.
Before they left, we joined hands in what had been Miss Mamie’s well-manicured front lawn and offered up prayers to the God who had made it all possible, our Loving Lord who freed us to serve. Miss Mamie was a witness to us all as she thanked God in her low fast words saying, “We Thank you God, we can never say thank you enough, We thank you God, we can never sat thank you enough, we thank you God, We can never say thank you enough, we thank you God…”
Wednesday Jane and Katherine mudded to the last minute in the morning and then left for the airport and later that day we were rejoined by Phil and Jim who began installing studs over the windows and doors where none had previously existed. By then, Deb and Judy had mudding well underway as screw heads and seams disappeared under their frosting of mud. Daniel Droppa and Larry knocked out the living room. Dan Pratt finished a closet. Erin and I worked on a bedroom, Steve and Jim finished the hall, all under Steve’s patient supervision. We received our usual visits form our sight manager Sam and Russ his supervisor.
By Thursday other sight managers and other staff were stopping by as word spread that we were getting close to doing something that almost never happens. Groups come and do what they can and leave and another comes behind them to continue the work, but they were awed that we were nearly finished with our massive project.
The last pieces of drywall were hung by nine-thirty Friday morning and all but a few of our crew had switched to mudding – every seam, every screw, every corner, and every joint three times. At 11:30 every seam was either finished or wet and we had reached the bottom of our mud bucket. As we cleaned the sight, we basked in our accomplishment. We had transformed a frame into a house that would soon be a home and we had done it together.
To our delight, Miss Mamie arrived as we were nearly at the end of our cleaning. We had hoped she would come so that we could see her again, to enjoy the warmth of her presence and proudly share with her our work. Through the week we had transformed the house and ourselves. We had transformed Miss Mamie’s life and she ours. Like Legion banished from the man and sent running over a cliff, we built up brokenness and banished disunity and chaos and transformed them into hope.
We had the opportunity, for one intense week, not only to get to know each other, do a job, and work on the house of an amazing woman, but also we had the opportunity to live by faith. We would not have been able to do what we did without God and had every member of our team not been there, working together. We had the freedom last week to take the time to acknowledge that nothing is possible without God and everything is possible with God. We had the freedom to see a glimpse of what the world could be if we could shed our worldly shackles and trust in the God who trusts us. At noon on Friday we gathered around for pictures in the house and pictures with Miss Mamie. We balanced cameras precariously so that we could all be in the shot – Jim, Steve, Phil, Daniel, Dan, Erin, Larry, Judy, Deb, Me, Tyree, and Miss Mamie. We thanked her for all that she has done for her community and she thanked us for the work we did on her house. We presented Miss Mamie with a piece of drywall Katherine had inscribed with the words “Hope Sweet Home, With Love, Dickey Memorial Presbyterian Church,” which we all signed. We prayed again giving thanks to our God with words and tears, this time within walls of Miss Mamie’s living room.