Dirt, sweat and shingles make memories on Gulf Coast volunteer trip

My ears are sunburned. My arms are covered with bug bites that itch like crazy. But I am exhilarated.

I have just returned home from Gulfport, Miss., where I helped to repair homes that were damaged in Hurricane Katrina. Barbara Rowe, pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, initiated the “mission” and members of Congregation Rodef Sholom were invited to join them.

We were an unlikely group of handypeople — seven Presbyterians and eight Jews. Twelve of our 15 were older than 50 — way older — and a couple had severe back problems. What, I wondered, when I first met the group, could we accomplish?

A lot, it turned out! With the help of nine young adults from AmeriCorps, in five days we stripped and re-shingled the roofs of three homes, providing new roofs over the heads of three families in the small Gulf Coast towns of Gautier and Pascagoula, Miss.

We climbed ladders and strode across the roofs in our work shoes and gloves. We shlepped shingles (those things are heavy!), placing them carefully in a designated pattern to ensure there were no open seams that would allow water to sneak underneath. We took turns operating the nail gun, powered by an air-compressor, to properly hold the shingles in place. We sat as close to the edge as our varying sensitivities would allow, cutting overlaps and loose ends and putting on the final touches. At the end of each day, we were filthier than we’d been in years and totally exhausted. And we had a wonderful time.

I learned of the trip quite by accident — I had to attend a meeting to make a short presentation, and it was a quick mention on the agenda. But it resonated for me. It sounded like an opportunity to do some hands-on tikkun olam, something I had been feeling I wanted — maybe even needed — to do.

Checking further, I learned we’d probably have tasks like gardening or painting, or perhaps drywall or cabinet installation, if we had the skills (nobody mentioned roofing!). We would stay at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport in temporary housing. I filled out the appropriate forms, sent in my $500 (for airfare and food costs) and marked off the dates on my calendar.

The church in Gulfport, as well as others in the area, is part of the Presbyterian Disaster Assistance network, whose motto is “Out of Chaos, Hope.” A quick look at the website (www.pcusa.org/pda) offers a mission similar to that of our own American Jewish World Service. Groups from around the country visit and spend a week or a few days doing what they can and filling the needs of the moment. People come once, and often come back again. When we were there, there were also groups from Albuquerque, N.M., and Knoxville, Tenn., along with the AmeriCorps service kids who would be staying for six weeks.

And yes, there was a bit of chaos. Our crew bosses had mild conflicts about work styles. The supplies weren’t always immediately available. We slept, not in the temporary tent-like housing we expected, but men and women together, scattered around the church, in hallways, the church library and in the aisles of the sanctuary where the carpeting was thick and plushy. Some 100 people shared four showers set up in portables. Flexibility was key.

Our crew bosses were amazing volunteers, who had driven to Gulfport in their mobile homes, settled in the church parking lot and stayed for four to six months to help.

Larry was a retired science teacher from Wisconsin, who patiently explained each task. When I asked why he was there, he told me: “I just felt like I wanted to give back.”

Chuck from Pittsburgh was a contractor. He drove a flatbed truck, delivering supplies and shared equipment among the various work sites. We were told he arrived in early November, driving up and saying simply, “What can I do?”

And Hoagie, a professional 30-ish handyman from New York, was clearly driven by his faith. He asked his crews to join hands in prayer at lunch and before breaking for the night.

The folks whose homes we repaired were gracious, grateful, warm and surprisingly upbeat. They were hard-working families whose homes were damaged, but not totally destroyed. They had some insurance and some savings, but not enough.

Driving briefly around the area and to the airport in New Orleans, we passed miles and miles of devastation and destruction — too much to possibly comprehend. In some ways, our three repaired houses were like spitting in the ocean. Still, for the Riveras and their five tiny poodles and one goose, and for Jody, Liz and 19-month-old Gloryn, and for Deborah and Johnny, who would soon move from the trailer on their front lawn back to their home, it was so much more.

Our team left Mississippi feeling pride in what we accomplished, reverence for the kindness and caring displayed by so many, and a tiny bit of guilt for having such a darn good time!

Suzan Berns, j.’s Faces columnist, is a freelance writer living in San Rafael. She can reached at [email protected].