Text: Hebrews 13:1-8
Do you remember where you were five years ago today?
I was moving into my seminary apartment, unpacking boxes in my living room, watching the news, filled with unforgettable images. Little did I know at the time, what I was seeing that day would leave a lasting impact on me and shape me profoundly in so many ways.
Five years ago today, the raging storm known as Katrina slammed into the Gulf Coast, sending massive amounts of water and wind on shore. Five years ago today, people were huddled inside their homes, hotels, shelters all over Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana trying to ride out the storm. Five years ago today, thousands were barricaded within the Louisiana Superdome, watching the roof ripping off. Five years ago today, people were watching the water rise and praying it would stop soon. Five years ago today, so many people’s lives would be changed forever.
It has been five years. It’s easy to forget what happened in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama because so much has happened since & the news stopped covering it after a while. However, those who experienced the storm first hand and those who witnessed its aftermath will always remember what happened. We owe it to those who lost their lives in the storm, those who went through it to remember.
Our text from Hebrews says, “Remember those who are in prison, as though you were in prison with them…remember those who are being tortured, as though yourselves were being tortured.” Even though people were not in a prison or being tortured by others, they were imprisoned by a storm, tortured by the overwhelming power of waves and wind. And in reading these words, I remember my experiences in Mississippi and Louisiana during the weeks, months, and years following Katrina.
Just six weeks after the storm hit, I found myself in a car heading down to D’Iberville, Mississippi, a hard hit town near the coast, with six other Columbia students. It was during our midterm week, so after we finished our Old Testament exam, we packed up and headed down the road to see the devastation for ourselves and lend a hand. For the remainder of the week, we lived in a makeshift tent city set up by the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance on a baseball field. We slept on military cots in tents, showered about 20 minutes away at a local gym. We ate our meals at a local community park with storm survivors, city officials, and volunteers alike. I remember sitting in the midst of the people, listening to their stories. I remember drinking water from aluminum cans donated by beer distributor who stopped production of beer for weeks on end – the only clean drinking water available.
And, I remember the smell. I’d never smelled anything like it before and have not smelled anything like it since. I remember driving all over the area, on streets barely passable, looking at scenes I’ve only seen in movies or on the news from overseas. Concrete slabs where homes used to stand – the only evidence people used to live there; debris everywhere, no people around, no birds, no visible signs of life. I remember feeling completely overwhelmed and like it wasn’t even real. But, it was.
One day, our group was assigned the task of cleaning debris on a street. We were told to push all the debris out to the curb so the city dump trucks could remove it. All day, we walked down that street, pushing the stuff to the street. All I could think was we were pushing the contents of people’s homes and lives out to the trash. These were their memories, all mixed together.
We also spent time working at the POD, or the Point of Distribution. There were no stores open in the area, no restaurants, no convenience stores. This was the place where people could come to get food, clean water, cleaning supplies, clothing, and other services. It was basically a large building that used to house a grocery store, which was gutted after the storm and turned into a POD for D’Iberville. I remember seeing the faces of people coming through the line as I handed them cans of food. They looked ragged, tired, sad, yet a glimmer of hope in their eyes. They knew they would be able to eat that night. Their families could eat. The basic needs of food, water, clothing were being met. That was enough for that day.
I remember coming home from Mississippi, just a four hour drive to the north, back to our normal lives. But, life wasn’t normal. The images of what I witnessed remained with me. It shaped my view on how I read scripture, thought about God and the world, and my experience of seminary in a profound way. I don’t think I was ever the same again.
My second trip to Mississippi was in December 2005. This time we were in Gulfport and Long Beach, where the water washed out much of the town. Our group put a new roof on a home for a woman. She had evacuated the town before Katrina hit, and returned when given clearance by the military, but her roof was badly damaged by the wind. I remember that she was profoundly grateful for us coming to help her.
As we were working that week, we came to know another local family – a father, mother, and their three sons. They lost their home in the storm and were now living a FEMA trailer. We spent time listening to their story of what happened – how they lost everything, but how grateful they were to still have each other. Our group took up a collection, some of us went to the store (some actually were open again!) and bought the kids new school supplies and backpacks. We also gave the family some money to help them get on their feet again.
One of the most powerful experiences was going to God’s Katrina Kitchen, a makeshift soup kitchen out on the beach. This was a place where locals, volunteers, anyone could come to get a hot meal. It was completely staffed by volunteers and others, housed in a large tent, and full at every meal. We sat at tables with people from the area, listening to their stories and sharing fellowship with one another.
There was so much damage still, but life was returning again to the area. People were trying to clean up and rebuild their homes, businesses, and lives. It was a long road ahead, but hope was there. God was there.
I returned to the Gulf Coast for the third time in February 2008, returning to the Long Beach neighborhood. I remember what it had looked like 2 years before and it looked so different. Houses had roofs, walls, and people actually lived there again. Life was indeed returning to the area.
I worked with a team on a home for Moses and Miriam. They were living in both a FEMA trailer and the part of Miriam’s home that wasn’t damaged. Although we were there to sand, mud, and prime the drywall in the house, we spent much of our time getting to know them. As a wonderful act of hospitality, Miriam would make food for us each day. At noon, we would gather together for prayer and a wonderful meal of fried chicken, red beans & rice, and cornbread. Most of all, it was the conversation that happened around the table. Moses and Miriam shared their story of surviving the storm. They didn’t have much money before Katrina, and certainly didn’t have much afterwards. But, they were alive and that’s all that mattered to them.
Moses and Miriam were witnesses of what happened to their community. Just as the countless others who survived the storm and tell their stories. I think in telling their stories, it is healing for them. And, I wanted to share the story with you all today, as we remember the power of natural disaster and acknowledge that it could happen again to any of us.
What would you do if your house was suddenly filling with water? What would you do if you found yourself clinging onto a tree or standing on a rooftop with no means of escape? What if you evacuated your town only to come back to find your home no long there, just a concrete slab with your memories scattered?
It is important to be mindful of how this can happen to us at any point, and this did happen to thousands of people five years ago today. But, their stories live on as witnesses to hope in the midst of such tragedy. Life can change in a complete instant – one minute things are normal and the next can bring about a new reality. But, as our text says this morning – “Since God has assured us, ‘I’ll never let you down, never walk off and leave you’, we can boldly quote, God is there, ready to help; I’m fearless no matter what, who or what can get to me?” Even though such tragedy strikes, we can be comforted by the fact that God remains with us through the pain, the aftermath, the rebuilding.
God was there on August 29, 2005 when the water rushed through the streets. God was there when the wind was ripping roofs apart and snapping trees. God was there when boats and helicopters came to rescue the people. God was there when teams of volunteers arrived to begin the long clean up. God is there. God is with them and with us. Thanks be to God.