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Forgotten Stories: Reflections from BWAP 2020 Florida

On January 9th a group of folks from Pres House traveled to Panama City Beach, Florida to do rebuilding work from Hurricane Michael. This Break With a Purpose Trip was not what the team expected as we had planned to go to Puerto Rico. But the earthquake in Puerto Rico on January 7th caused us to change our plans. Here are reflections from some of the members of the 2020 BWAP team on what they learned and saw on the Florida panhandle. Many of these are forgotten stories. These reflections were shared during worship on February 2nd alongside the story of the Good Samaritan from Luke 10:25-37. You can also listen to the audio recording here:

“Forgotten Stories Reflecting On BWAP 2020” ~ 02.02.2020
Luke 10:25-37 (Students Silas S., Theresa S., Shaniya A., Evan D.)
Silas’s Story – 9:50
Theresa’s Story – 13:27
Shaniya’s Story – 17:03
Evan’s Story – 20:26

It had for months been our plan to travel to Puerto Rico for our annual Break with a Purpose trip to help with relief efforts from Hurricane Maria, which devastated the island in 2017. Thousands were killed by the storm and the already financially-crippled US territory suffered billions of dollars in damage. Due in large part to the federal government’s lack of adequate response, many parts of the island are still in shambles, and it was our hope to come and help in any way we could.

This all changed on the morning of Tuesday, January 7th, barely 24 hours before our flight was scheduled to leave, when a 6.4 magnitude earthquake rocked the battered island. Thousands of people were displaced from their homes as countless buildings suffered severe damage, and a majority of the island lost power. Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, the organization we were partnering with, recommended that we not go to Puerto Rico at that time as it would be very complicated for us to try to help with the damage being so fresh. While our hearts were broken for the people of the island, we had to accept that we wouldn’t be able to come help.

Most team leaders probably would have simply cancelled the trip and moved on with their busy lives. Any of you who know Mark and Erica, however, know that they are anything but average, and shouldn’t be surprised to hear that they went above and beyond to make the best of our circumstances. They were able to coordinate with Presbyterian Disaster Assistance to find us a new location – Panama City Beach, Florida, which was devastated by Category 5 Hurricane Michael in 2018 – and new hosts at Gulf Beach Presbyterian Church.

From the very beginning, we were blown away by the kindness and generosity of the folks at what they called the little Pink Church, and in particular our hosts Betty, Lorainne, and Sandy. Typically teams bring their own linens, pillows, and towels, but after finding out that some members of our team were already en route and wouldn’t be able to bring those items, they were able to round up enough of them for all of us. Most groups also do most or all of their own cooking during their stay. They, however, realizing that we were not prepared for this, volunteered to cook several absolutely delicious home cooked meals for us, carefully accounting for the dietary restrictions of our group. They took care of our every need, and did it with grace and love. They also didn’t pressure us to do anything that we didn’t want to do, and expected nothing in return for their many acts of kindness.

In many ways, our hosts were like a group of Good Samaritans to us. We came from a place of great need and they responded with acts of great kindness. We came from different walks of life, grew up in different eras, and cheer for different sports teams, but they accepted and welcomed us with open arms. And they expected no repayment for their abundant generosity. They showed us what it means to truly love thy neighbor.

Looking back at how our trip unfolded from the uncertainty and chaos that began it, I am convinced that God’s hand was at work through it all. As one member of the team remarked toward the end of our trip, it felt like going to Florida had been the plan all along. The perfect falling into place of plans and extravagant welcome that we received on ridiculously short notice was nothing short of incredible. We remain heartbroken for the people of Puerto Rico, but at the same time can’t help but marvel at how God was able to bring forth light from such a dark situation.

We met a lot of amazing people during our time in Panama City, Florida. The ones I’m going to talk about, though, are the homeowners. Each of their stories is unique, but there is one thing they all had in common. Shortly after the hurricane, each was no longer able to live in their home as is, and after a period of time (we don’t know exactly how long), FEMA brought them a mobile home to live in for about 12 months until their homes were re-built.

We worked on a total of four homes throughout that week, and we were fortunate enough to hear stories from 3 of the homeowners. The first woman we met was Yvonne, or “Eve”. Eve had lived in her home we worked on for 35 years when the storm hit. Although she and her family had been provided a FEMA trailer, her daughter and grandchildren remained in the home until just a couple of weeks before we arrived in Florida. Their home had a lot of black mold and pretty severe water damage. We had the opportunity to help treat all of the wood beams in her house to remove the existing black mold and prevent any from returning in the future.

The second woman we met was Mary. She shared with us an incredible story of her experience during and after the hurricane. She gave us her testimony, telling us how God protected her (and her 5 chihuahuas) when the storm ripped off the roof of her home and half of the exterior walls. I was personally quite moved by her calm demeanor regarding the entire experience, and the fact that she said she had never felt more safe in her life before or since then.

We spent Sunday, Monday and Tuesday working on the home of Alex. He was a veteran with an adorable, although somewhat sickly, dog named Jack-Jack. He recently was the victim of a robbery in which he was shot, and since then it has been much harder for him to get around. We were grateful to have had the opportunity to help hang dry wall, mud, tape, and help bring his home even closer to the finish line.

I also want to share one more story that I found really moving. On Sunday we worshipped at the church that hosted us for the week. During worship we found out that the pastor, who was there preaching that morning, had lost his eldest son just a few days before. He was experiencing so much pain and sorrow, but yet he felt a strong connection to his church and to God, so much so that he needed to be there and express his gratitude to both for all the love he felt and support he had received. I thought that it was a moving and inspiring thing to witness, and it is something I won’t soon forget.

I have come back from Florida with many memories—of the homeowners, of the members of the church that hosted us, of time spent with fellow students on the trip. This trip was all too real a reminder to me of the hardship that many other parts of our country and world endure following all kinds of disasters. This trip helped show me that the work is never done, and I know I will continue to do my part to help others whenever I can.

After learning that we were going to Florida for BWAP, one of my biggest questions was, “what are we going to do there?” I, like nearly everyone else, had no idea of the extent of wreckage that was still prevalent after the hurricane; I actually thought that most everything had been restored– largely because there wasn’t anything in the news that said otherwise. What I quickly learned was that there was no shortage of need for volunteers, with people still living in FEMA trailers waking up to their belongings still sitting in their front yard or their home molding away right next door. With Hurricane Michael being almost a year and a half ago now, we were focused largely on just rebuilding.
So, as aforementioned, we worked on four houses while we were there. In three of the homes, we were basically amateur contractors. We demolished walls; mold-suppressed the wooden structure of the houses; installed new drywall; and then mudded, sanded, and textured the new walls and ceilings. It was like visually Extreme Makeover: Home Edition but physically an all day everyday gym membership– it may not look like it, but we are definitely stronger now than we were before the trip!

In Mary’s home, we had a bit of a different job. Her home hadn’t begun the process of rebuilding yet, as most of her belongings were in the yard, damaged and waiting to be disposed of. Our task in her home was to ask her what she wanted to keep, what she thought was salvageable, and what she wanted to throw away. Tossing things into an enormous metal bin can sound satisfying, but when you actually think about the fact that we were throwing away literally everything she had ever owned, everything that made her house a home, it was a pretty heavy time.

To lighten up some of these darker moments, we kept a pretty constant stream of conversation amongst each other and the Project Leads that we met. There were five Leads that we worked with -Tommy, Annie, Parker, Richard, and Josh; they all worked for SBP, which is the organization that we worked with during the trip, under AmeriCorp. From whacky questions –and I really have no idea who was asking those or even why– to really being able to listen to them share their personal stories, we were able to learn so much about them in such a short amount of time and that really added to the experience as a whole. We went down there thinking about what we were going to be doing, what we were going to be working on, how these actions could help make a difference and change lives, but -at least- I woefully underestimated how much of an impact just talking to people would have on what we were able to take away from the trip and the healing journeys of everyone we met. I think that those connections, relationships, conversations with Team Leads, the homeowners, and with each other are probably the fondest, funniest memories I have and they mean the most.

I’ll take a shot at connecting this to the Good Samaritan story, which we talked about during devotional one night. Basically the hyper-condensed summary is that someone was left injured and alone and while numerous people passed him by, it was the person that he least expected that actually stopped to help him. All of the people that we met on this trip just expected a group to show up, follow instructions, and rebuild a house, but what they received was a team that surpassed that, that actually wanted to engage with them and hear their story. Machines can learn to put a house together, but only a team of people can build a home; I encourage each one of you to follow whatever you can take from that because you never know how it can dramatically transform your experience and the experience of those around you.

Good Afternoon. Along with the other individuals leading the service today, I had the privilege, on behalf of Pres House, to travel to and serve in Panama City, Florida. There we did relief work on people’s homes damaged by Hurricane Michael in 2018. I am going to share some of my reflections on this experience.

The linguistic efficacy of stories is a great wonder of the world. A story’s powerful ability to convey meaning and emotion and experience and sometimes even a sense of a call to action is just incredible. Our Break With A Purpose (BWAP) trip was planned with the intention of doing hurricane relief work in Puerto Rico, but the recent seismic activity kept us away. Somehow with hard work and quite a bit of coincidence, Mark and Erica turned around the trip in one day so that we could do relief work in Florida to help with Hurricane Michael recovery. Wait, Hurricane Michael? When I first heard this, I scanned my memory for the faintest recollection of when this even happened. I just vaguely recalled that Hurricane Michael, a Category 5 hurricane, had hit the United States. As we would later learn, Michael was the fourth most intense hurricane to hit the continental US based on windspeeds. What?! How could I have not been more aware of this? Surely the disaster and recovery involved with this violent of a storm was substantial in magnitude. What happened to the story of Michael? How many other stories are like this? The short answer is an obvious and unfortunate one, many stories are like this.

The reality of whose story gets told and how, is harsh and vastly unequal in our world. When we arrived to the first day at our worksite, the leaders from Hope Panhandle, which was the local nonprofit we were working with, told us how the story of Hurricane Michael was quickly lost, and how the people of the Florida Panhandle were quickly forgotten. When Michael made landfall on the 10th of October 2018, the mainstream media was heavily saturated with coverage of the worst wildfire year in California history and the partisan debates of the Brett Kavanaugh controversy among other things. As someone who generally considers themselves to be informed on things going on in the world, this reality of the continued suffering and forgotten stories of the people of the Panhandle begun to weigh deeper and deeper on my heart and mind. We continued throughout the week listening to the stories of the homeowners, witnessing the overwhelming destruction that remained even after a year and a half of recovery efforts, and learning from those who are experiencing it how their stories been forgotten. This overwhelming sense of guilt for the immense privilege I have came over me. These people didn’t deserve any of this. And who am I to be in the position that I’m in anyways? I took a breath. As a child of God, I remember, that everything I have is a gift from God. These gifts include two crucial spiritual currencies: our time and our attention. The Good Samaritan, as Jesus shared, knows the proper use of these currencies as exemplified by his selfless actions. Employing his attention and time to the man beaten by robbers, he loves him in that moment, acknowledging his story and through that becoming a part of it. We as individuals and as God’s children are living out our own stories, and whether we are conscious of it or not, our stories are constantly interweaving with one another’s. Through acknowledging all of who I am and my story, I consciously and intentionally worked to transform this guilt and shame of my privilege into an understanding of my responsibility to action with my time and attention.

As the 2020 Break With A Purpose trip to Panama City demonstrated, the world is full of forgotten stories, including those of the people of the Florida Panhandle devastated by Michael. Jesus calls us to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. To do so is a task of a lifetime, and there is no cutting corners. It requires continual reminders to oneself, a loving intention carried from moment to moment in what we say and in what we do. Each day, with the gifts of time and attention that each of us have, we need seek out and listen to the stories of those who have been forgotten. It doesn’t require one to look very far. Each one of us surround or contain lost stories. We are called to look deeper into who we already are, not taking our roles as student, teacher, researcher too seriously, but rather bringing into a loving awareness and then into action, our nature as human co-creators. Through the intention to listen, acknowledge and allow, dive deeper into the relationships that your already have while also actively seeking new ones to be made. Do it anywhere and everywhere, even if it means venturing into the discomfort, unless doing so compromises your safety. By undertaking this we interweave our stories tighter and tighter so that we are never the same, transforming ourselves into servants of God and God’s creation, and loving our neighbors as ourselves. Let me remind you that my sharing of these words today is just as much of a reminder to myself as it is me reflecting to you all what I think and feel through my experience with Pres House to Panama City. Life is not easy, and we are not alone. Amen.

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