Under Their Own Oak Tree

“I’d hafta be some kinda fool not to at least talk to these people.”

Picture a dozen plus tired travellers sitting at round tables in a 1950’s tropical church fellowship hall, listening to the testimony of an older gentleman contractor named Mr. Rogers. Even if you are jet-lagged, as we certainly were, the hint of warning in his southern baritone made us sit up a little straighter. Who were these people? As each staff member shared about restoration work, and why they felt personally led to assist in a gigantic volunteer effort, we realised we were stepping into a partnership with mentors who were passionate about seeing their local communities lifted up. Did we feel equipped to serve alongside World Renew and the Fuller Centre for a two-week stint of post-hurricane disaster rebuilding? We’d arrived with limited skills, but a huge appetite for adventure after two long years of being grounded by COVID regulations. Time to listen up, lest we become fools too.

In August 2021, on the sixteenth anniversary of Katrina, Hurricane Ida, a category 4 storm, touched down and dealt a catastrophic blow to communities across six states in the Southern USA. New Orleans, Louisiana, and the surrounding area were without power for weeks. Images of the devastating rainfall, fatal heat waves, and flooding, dominated the nightly newscasts. And then, as often happens after the floodwaters and shocking images recede, the world moved on to the next story. 

And yet, hurricane clean-up is no small task. In the time it took to make the slightest dent clearing downed trees, restore power lines and ensure that the water was not contaminated, entire countries were violently occupied by dormant foes, celebrities sabotaged glittering careers and wealthy civilians made their way to the moon. It is no wonder distant climate disasters can be so easily forgotten. While the main streets, businesses, stadiums, and schools got cleaned up that fall, we learned it was a different story for many homeowners in the Tangipahoa Parish of Southern Louisiana, where in some towns more than a third of residents live below the poverty line. For many folks, living (or at least, surviving) without health insurance, home insurance or employment insurance is completely normal. 

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

1 Corinthians 1:18

“You had to be some kinda fool to repair a house that might just get destroyed again by the next storm. Best move on.”

On our first day of work, many of us wondered why someone would choose to remain in a semi-destroyed home. The weeks following Ida, people had no power and suffered in the heat, struggling to access clean water. Some homeowners slept in semi-crushed bedrooms under fallen oak trees rather than leave what meagre possessions they had left. It was not uncommon to hear that profiteers would ransack homes for whatever household goods were salvageable. Many remembered the displacement of Katrina— the loved ones who said they were heading east temporarily never to return to Louisiana. 

We picked up our paintbrushes, sandpaper and drywall tape and went to work with these questions. The work days began at 8 o’clock in the morning, and ended around 3:30 in the afternoon. Long hours of mudding, sanding and priming walls gave us time to think about the occupants of the houses we were working on. We asked the foreman on the jobs if it was efficient to train volunteers to do the kind of disaster repair work we were slowly doing. It was time consuming, training volunteers week after week, wasn’t it?

The foreman paused and rubbed his hands up and down his generously-tattooed arm. “Yes. It is time-consuming to meet new people and teach them new skills each week. And yet, each Friday we see progress on these houses. If it weren’t for volunteers, this work, slow as it may be, would simply not get done.”

In some locations, we met the homeowners, many of whom welcomed our other tentative questions. Did they have families? (And by extension, the unspoken question hovering in the air: where were they?) The answers humbled and surprised us. Almost 900,000 never returned to their home state after Katrina. Some of those thousands are the children of the homeowners we met. 

Another demographic we were not used to encountering were veterans. Everywhere we turned it seemed we heard men referring to tours of duty to far flung locales that for us seemed like mythical images on screens. As we painted, shingled and hauled debris we learned about the desert, sex-trafficking and an alternate route to higher education via the military. Some of the people we met had sacrificed their bodies and souls serving their country in exchange for a college degree, and this gave our students pause. Many are on the cusp of heading to university. You’d have to be some kinda fool not to wonder: “what might my country ask from me some day?”

“Building a better world, one house at a time.”

—Fuller Center Motto

One of the gifts of serving in partnership with the Fuller Centre is that they have been active in Louisiana since Katrina and through them we had the opportunity to work alongside a group of friends from the Salem Lutheran Church in Hermantown, Minnesota. This team of super dads have been faithfully using their gifts to respond to disasters in the southern states since 2005. Because of their faithfulness, our students learned to shingle a roof, side a house and the most essential skill: how to play Amish ping-pong.

You gotta be some kinda fool to drive through that neighbourhood.”

It is impossible to have a favourite southerner, because they all exude a hospitality as fresh as the breeze off Lake Ponchartrain and as sweet as their sweet tea, but we honestly couldn’t have asked for a lovelier host than Miss Stacy, the loud talking, no nonsense, petite firecracker who ordered our days. For two decades she worked alongside her husband in a family restaurant, but the pandemic and the hurricane resulted in a one-two punch that shuttered the business. God picked her up and used her formidable people skills to direct restoration projects in Southeast Louisiana. Her worksite visits take her through neighbourhoods where gun violence is so common, she’s been caught in the crossfire of conflict on her way to work. Her extended family has begged her to abandon this job, but as she often prays before the workday begins: “Precious Lord, you have put each of us where we are meant to be. We know you love us all so much.” As someone familiar with the heat in the kitchen, she was willing to risk her safety to see people’s homes and dignity restored.

As this year draws to a close, we are grateful for the opportunity to have gone to Louisiana, and consider the faithfulness of all those we encountered. For some of our students, the trip was so profound, they found themselves changing their future and reconsidering their study plans. Working with our hands gave us space to meditate on all that this past year has meant. Tired and dirty at the end of each day, we prayed for the homeowners and the residents of the city where we were guests for a short time. And these words came to me from Micah 4, a blessing spoken under my breath for the prosperity of the city. 

“May everyone sit under their own vine…under their own oak tree, and may no one, and no storm, make them afraid.”

From our mouths to God’s ears. Amen.

[instagram-feed user=act_five num=7 cols=7 showheader=false showbutton=false showfollow=false imagepadding=0 imagepaddingunit=px]