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Campus ministry team rebuilds in Gulf Coast over spring break

Removing the contents and gutting a hurricane-damaged house in New Orleans to its frame, a team of 13 students and five adult leaders from Koinonia House in Pullman experienced Lent in a tangible way during spring break in March.

“We saw first hand the consequences of pollution, poverty, incompetence, greed and the violence of neglect,” said the Rev. Walt Miller, a retired Presbyterian minister and Hospice chaplain who accompanied them.  “All around there was evidence of crucifixion.”

The students saw also signs of resurrection as they joined thousands of students on spring break from colleges and universities around the country—including Whitworth College and Gonzaga University—church groups and relief agencies “becoming the hands, arms, legs and eyes of Christ,” he said.

“Amid the mold, dust and debris, we experienced the Spirit of the living Christ, and were blessed in so many ways,” continued Walt, for whom this was the first experience of doing disaster relief in the United States.  He has previously gone on mission trips to Central America.

The group worked with a program set up by Presbyterian Disaster Relief to help with Gulf Coast relief.  They lived in a camp in Luling, La., and worked on the home of Connie and Ronald Andry in the Mid City part of New Orleans, a diverse, middle-class neighborhood.

“Their family had evacuated the day before Katrina hit and breached levees, flooding their neighborhood with 10 feet of water for two weeks,” Walt said.  “The house had been declared salvageable, and the owner decided to rebuild, which meant removing all contents and gutting it to the frame.”

Students and sponsors returned feeling they made a small difference and that they were “ministered to,” said Walt, who is on the Common Ministry Council and serves as a resident theologian for students.

They experienced the koinonia—community—that Koinonia House is about as the Common Ministry at Washington State University.

“They experienced koinonia as hard work, commitment, fellowship and caring, humor, conversation and common cause that bonded the group in ways only mission trips with a purpose can do,” he added.  “We learned to love each other and we became family.”

They also experienced koinonia with and felt blessed by their connection with the family who owned the house. 

“They were present each day and spent quality time in conversation with us,”  Walt said.  “They helped us sort through stuff to save, told us stories, shared their grief and shared their love and deep appreciation.”

Connie’s brother Gregg lived in Uptown, unflooded and less affected by Katrina. After evacuating to Baton Rouge, Connie now has a FEMA trailer in Gregg’s driveway.

Gregg is now an unemployed elementary school teacher—his school has yet to re-open—and a professional jazz musician.   He was with us part of every day, and spent one day riding with three van loads to the 9th Ward.

“Dropping off I-10 we entered a wasteland of wreckage, house after house, block after block, mile after mile of devastation,” Walt said.  “Houses were on top of houses on top of cars—houses in the streets, water lines to the roofs.

“As we drove through what looked like a war zone, our van became silent. We were speechless. These were not merely houses, they were homes. Families had lived and loved and died here. Now they were gone in the great post Katrina diaspora that has scattered them all around the United States,” he said.

“The witness of this family God had given us—Connie, Ronald and Gregg—ministered to us. We received the greatest blessing. On the last day, after we finished sweeping, cleaning and final details of our de-construction work, we gathered in a circle inside the gutted house.

One student led a reflection and a prayer of blessing. Then Connie spoke. 

Walt said her eloquent and profound words left everyone in tears. She spoke of depression and indecision about what to do with the house the first time she saw it when she returned. 

“She spoke of the despair of seeing her home filled with mold and debris broken into a thousand pieces. Then, she said, there was a transformation. On the second and third day she began to see the possibilities. She turned a corner. She began to be filled with hope and gratitude. She said that God had sent us to her. Now the house was blessed from the ground up, just as it had been blessed when it was finished the first time,” Walt recounted.

Connie said: “You’re all family now. This is your home, too. You all have to come back and spend some time here.”

“We will,” Walt said.  “Whenever you meet the living Christ in the love and suffering of his people, you have to go back and meet him again.”

WSU nursing student Marnie Miller-keas said she discovered that “although we are all living in the same country, the devastation in the lives of people we met robbed them of so much privilege that the rest of the country still enjoys.”

Dustin Nieman, another student, said being there challenged his “boundaries of comfort” and has opened him up more to other people.

The experience helped student Robbie Schott realize “the goodness in others” and “my own potential to help others.”

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina last fall, students at K-House had collected donations to send through the United Methodist Committee on Relief.

For information, call 332-2611.

Whitworth class ties art, psychology to re-roofing homes

Whitworth College offered a Jan Term service-learning class that combined art and psychology as a framework for 18 students to spend two weeks helping re-roof homes in Gulfport and Biloxi, Miss., and learn about an intentional community in Jackson, Miss.

Gordon Wilson, chair of the art department, taught the course with Andrea Donahoe, professor of psychology. The Rev. Stephanie Noble-Beans of the chaplain’s office joined them on the trip.

“I taught about art of the South, African-American and self-taught artists.  I also worked to improve students’ visual observation skills, so they could absorb more from the experience,” Gordon said.

Andrea encouraged students to look at how people respond to crises, their resilience and the social and family ties that help support them.

The group stayed with 100 other volunteers at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport and accepted assignments given each day by the Presbyterian Disaster Response Assistance organizer there.  Local churches informed the organizer of needs—people with no insurance or not enough insurance.

“I have never participated in any disaster relief like this, so I had never seen anything like the destruction we saw,” Gordon said.  “Along the coast, all that was left of some homes was a concrete slab.

“We could clearly see the difference between the haves and the have-nots, in that the have-nots experienced more damage and had less means to recover,” said Gordon, a member of Covenant United Methodist Church.

He was also frustrated to see in Jackson an ingrained segregated education system with whites in private church schools and blacks in public schools, rather than having them grow up together.

Three of his art students who went to Mississippi are in his spring class and working on art relating to their experience.  He is working on his fourth drawing related to the experience and has a summer grant to do mixed-media art related to the experience of the disaster and the social issues.

After some of the students who went during Jan Term returned, they recruited other students to return there to work with them on disaster rebuilding during spring break, he said.

For information, call 777-4568