Community Comment:

A Thanksgiving Epiphany is remembered during Advent

It was an epiphany. Standing on a concrete median at the corner of Tulane and Carrollton streets, smack in the middle of New Orleans .For that one brief moment on Thanksgiving Day, time stopped and little in the temporal realm seemed to matter very much.

The occasion was a missions trip. A group of 47 faithful prayer warriors from six Evansville churches, women from Grace House, the Rev. Mike Marsh and six of us from Oasis Assembly of God Church in Princeton, Ind., loaded a bus with tools, clothing, food, drinks, sleeping bags, CD players and Bibles and journeyed more than 700 miles to give aid, comfort and relief to those whose lives have been uprooted in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

In the Scriptures we read about life-changing moments of biblical figures. Mary, for instance, prior to the birth of Jesus, after being visited by an angel ran to the hill country to visit a relative, the aging Elizabeth. Amazingly, though she was very old, she was with child. With a word from Mary the unborn baby, John the Baptist, leapt in Elizabeth's womb for joy. At that moment, Mary's song of praise is immortally recorded in Luke 1:46-47, which begins, "My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Savior."

Our 14-hour journey led us to Hosannah Assembly of God Church in Marrero, La., which would be the staging area for all our activities throughout the week. Our evenings were spent in nearby Belle Chase, La., at a parsonage and a church building that had suffered severe roof damage.

The week remains a jumble of emotional, traumatic images that will remain indelibly etched in our minds.As far as 50 miles north of Hattiesburg, Miss. - 150 miles from the coast - we could see huge trees twisted off like toothpicks and damage to the roofs of homes. The closer we got to New Orleans, the worse conditions seemed to get.

That evening, driving through New Orleans on the elevated Interstate 10 and viewing the dimmed and damaged skyline, one could easily tell we were looking at a severely wounded city. But that was only the bricks and mortar.

After a day of rest and a huge meal served at the church Sunday evening, Monday morning found us getting down to the business of why we were there.

Some of us found ourselves on the roof of a small Assembly of God church in nearby Lafitte,La., way down in the bayou country south of New Orleans. Upon removing the tarpaulin installed by Samaritan's Purse, Franklin Graham's international relief effort, we were overwhelmed by a brackish, putrid odor that was almost overwhelming.

Some from our group worked inside hanging insulation and drywall that needed to be replaced from the flood damage. Others were detailed to a parsonage in another part of the New Orleans suburbs that had suffered damage.Still others prepared food and bundles of badly needed housewares that were distributed free each day in a street ministry.

Those of us on the roof had our hands full with reconstruction. But each day we heard countless stories of people, living in once-flooded houses, who had all but lost hope along with all their worldly possessions. The tears flowed as our group prayed with them each day.
One of the organizers of the trip, the Rev. Glen Pfohl of Good Shepherd Assembly of God in Evansville, said that among the most popular of the 12 truckloads of food and household items distributed to inner city residents was bleach. Apparently, many New Orleans residents continue to use a solution of bleach and water to wash down the walls in their homes in an effort to remove the stench of mold and mildew.

In hindsight, three long days of rigorous construction work seems almost like a prelude to perhaps the most significant part of our journey - distributing some 700 hot meals on Thanksgiving Day to impoverished residents in the heart of New Orleans. They came from nearby neighborhoods and far away. From every ethnic group imaginable, their troubled, hungry faces were transformed into smiles of thankfulness as they visited the parking lot where we were distributing food. Someone handed me a cardboard sign with the words "FREE HOT MEALS" scrawled on it.

As I stood in the middle of the street and looked toward the central business district at an almost empty thoroughfare, I saw mountains of trash on both sidewalks. I contemplated our hard work and the enormousness of the job of recovery. Suddenly, I lost control of my emotions - for several minutes I stood in the bright sunshine and tears poured down my cheeks.

So, this Advent season, it is very difficult not to be thankful. Thankful for thoughtful parents, friends and members of the various churches who prayed for us while were gone. Thankful for the thousands of Christian volunteers from Samaritan's Purse, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and other churches and faith-based groups across the country that are doing the heavy lifting in the hurricane recovery effort - an effort that will continue for a long, long time.

But finally, I am thankful for a spiritual savior who came to this world as an infant human being, to teach us how to live and to give his life so that we might have life eternal.
It was by our faith in his teachings that our merry band of  47 were persuaded to journey to the Gulf Coast. Each in his own way demonstrated the verse "Love thy neighbor as thyself" and grew personally for the privilege of doing so.

David Coker is a free-lance writer and community activist.