“Ten years ago…”
If you know anyone from the Gulf Coast, you’ve probably heard him or her start off a story like that recently. You’ve seen the Facebook posts. You’ve read the editorial columns. A decade has passed since Hurricane Katrina took her toll on this region, washing bare the shores of the coast and turning New Orleans into a bowl of water, grime, and chaos.
My stack of stories is extensive. I could share what it was like to be a twenty-one year old who stayed through the storm. I could tell you about the winds howling through the city as the eye of Katrina passed just to the east of us. I could tell you about the immense quiet and stillness that settled in that Monday afternoon – the heat growing thicker and thicker as those of us who stayed sighed, heavy with the relief of surviving “the big one.” I could tell you of the chilling fear, despite the heat, when we learned the levees were giving way, the intensity mounting as the heat and waters rose and we realized help was not coming. I could tell you about the sheer panic in my sister’s voice when she called that Tuesday, desperate to know if we were alive. I could tell you of the dull ache that settled in my stomach when I realized the floodwaters washed away most of my worldly belongings.
I could also tell you about the kindness I was shown in those days, weeks, months following the storm. Many of you already know those stories because many of you dropped everything and came to help, no questions asked. And many of you have continued to come back to this place time and time again to serve.
Ten years later, though, there is only one story that stands out to me in that jumble of experiences piled messily in a corner in my mind. In a period of time between leaving New Orleans and arriving up north for school, I landed in Texas with my family. Most of the memories of that time are shaded darkly, and the lines are not always distinct, but one afternoon stands out starkly against the fuzziness.
We were in a hotel full of people just like us: evacuees, refugees, survivors (we went by many names at that point), and a nearby congregation took it upon themselves to “adopt” us for a few days. I remember riding downstairs in the elevator wearing the same outfit I’d worn for three days prior, and when we stepped outside the lobby into the hotel parking lot, the church members had set up a serving line. I numbly grabbed a plate and stepped forward, and a junior high boy, braces flashing in the sunlight as he smiled, handed me a hot dog and a bag of chips. He might have said something to me, but I can’t be sure. The next thing I knew, I was in the elevator again, struggling to breathe through raw, heaving sobs.
I was twenty-one, idealistic, and invincible. I was going to save the world. I was the one who bestowed kindness, served others, handed out handouts. And in one seemingly simple act, this teenager knocked me to my knees (quite literally).
I’m grateful for many of the lessons that came out of the storm, but none has marked me so much as this: No matter which side of the serving line I find myself, I am no savior. I am no hero. Instead, I am as cracked and vulnerable as those faulty levees that surrounded my beloved NOLA in 2005.
Ten years later, and this is the truth I circle back to time and time again. Working with MissionLab, first as site coordinator and now as director, I am humbled over and over as I have the chance to share this lesson I am still struggling to master. Every volunteer who comes to this place to share Christ’s message of love must remember that we are also in need. When we set out “on mission,” we must first realize that we are also desperate for a Savior. God has called us, these cracked vessels, to serve one another, to love one another, to walk humbly. May we remember, no matter what storm we find ourselves in, that we are broken and full of faults, and as a great man reminded me just this morning, each of us is simply “one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.”