Saturday, December 31, 2005


Today has fostered a multitude of emotions. Help me be steadfast, God.

Today, as we traveled to the work site along the coastline, I was struck yet again by the magnitude of what I was seeing, hearing, and feeling. When something so big and horrific has devastated these people in such a thorough way, how can a person as small as me do anything of importance? To my right was a peaceful, serene stretch of ocean, a sight which always humbles me, while on my other side was one of the most moving and ghastly spectacles I have ever seen. I often pride myself on being well-traveled and “wise” in the ways of world poverty and devastation. As I have come to think, I’ve done my fair share of poverty tourism and seen the worst of the worst. Driving to Biloxi, however, floored me. This, I had to remind myself, is America. This is not a third world country, yet it is the most humbling and heart-jerking scene I have ever seen. Drew, the driver of my Tahoe transportation, pulled over near a particularly trashed creek and we tentatively stepped out into a full-blown war zone.

I walked with trepidation through the wreckage of someone’s home, carefully trying to avoid the broken china and glass that was scattered across what was formerly a beautiful beachfront backyard. As I walked toward the destroyed brick house, I saw an amalgamation of stuffed animals, clothes, and household appliances littering the lawn. The side of the house had a spray-painted X, a symbol I had seen previously on many houses and buildings in St. Bernard Parish. The X on each building signifies that it has been searched for bodies, and the number in the X signifies the number of bodies found in each building. Seeing this spray-painted X with the number one on the side of what I’m sure used to be a well-loved and beautiful house struck me in a way nothing else had.

After absorbing the destruction as best as could be done in a time span of ten minutes, we reloaded the Tahoe and went on to the work site: Sylvia’s house. Sylvia is one of the sweetest women I have ever met. Yesterday, after seeking a listening ear and finding one in me, she told me about the hurricane. She, her husband, and her son were on her front porch when Katrina hit and she described the acute fear she felt as she heard and saw the storm approaching. She told me how a wall of water from the sea came from the left, while from the right came a wall of water from the bay, and she watched as the two walls met and exploded in front of her house. She doesn’t know how to swim and told me that she has never known a fear as terrifying as when the water began creeping up her body at a steady pace. I talked with her for a few minutes, and she gave me a cursory tour of her trailer, welcoming all of us to “borrow” her facilities at any time. After talking to her about her experience and discovering her undaunted optimism, I realized that even though her house had been destroyed, her home was still within her. Her home was the community, not just confined to the four walls of her house. She also articulated that everything had been put into perspective; her possessions were not as important as her family and community and faith.

The unflagging generosity of Sylvia and her husband astounded me. We arrived each day expecting nothing in return for our efforts, yet Sylvia and her husband provided us with clean bathroom facilities (thank goodness!), cookies, chips, cold drinks, and a ready smile. Sylvia even bought a mechanical back massager and worked on our tight muscles during the lunch break. Our work crew from Tennessee and Canada was there to help them, to fix them, yet Sylvia was the one fixing us. She taught me about optimism. She taught me about compassion. She taught me about hope and generosity and faith. She seemed to be the one healing us, but we’re not the broken ones… are we?

Help me be steadfast, God.

Sarah Terpstra
Group Charlie - Team 3

As Told To Me…

Daryl Fansler came up to me tonight a few minutes after midnight (Knoxville time) and told me a story. It was sketchy, and I might screw up the details, but I wanted to pass it on…

It seems that last November a crew from Knoxville, Daryl included, came down here on a work trip. One of the jobs they did was drywalling Jimmie Lamey’s house. Jimmy was pretty despondent at that time. His wife and family had left for more hospitable environs, his job was in jeopardy, and he really didn’t know what the next step was going to be. Daryl and crew drywalled his house and went back to Knoxville.

Tonight, Daryl called Jimmy to wish him a Happy New Year. Jimmy was exuberant. His wife and family had returned, he was back in the house and a celebration – complete with excited kids voices -- was obvious in the background. Jimmy told Daryl that since he’d moved back into his house, things were looking up. Since November, he and some of his friends had mucked out over 20 houses in the area, bringing hope to a small but growing number of his neighbors.

A marvelous and heartwarming example of paying it forward.

We’re changing lives and bringing hope on the Gulf Coast.

- dan terpstra
for Daryl Fansler
Group R - Team 4

On The Fourth Day

Today was our fourth day of work. I have been working with my 11 year old son, Sam. We spent the day on the ground, cleaning up the mess created by taking the old roof off. We talked to the owner of the house, Larry. His home insurance did not cover flood damage, so he was doing all the reconstruction himself and – according to his wife – about killing himself doing it. She was the one who appealed to Presbyterian Disaster Assistance on his behalf. Their house had seven feet of water in it.

Insurance companies are looking very bad in the wake of Katrina. They are trying to weasel out of paying homeowners for their legitimate claims. May God bring justice against the insurance companies and for the homeowners.

On the brighter side, my son and I are learning to use new tools and learning some valuable skills. We are very tired at night and sleep soundly every night. We are most grateful to Fritz Schilling and Rick Kuhlman and the others for planning all this. And thanks to Mike, the food has been great!

David Garnett
Group P - Team 6

What's in Your Heart?

We’ve worked for four days now and I feel like I have learned enough to build a new roof on my house if I ever needed to. Yet, within those four days, I still haven’t figured out if my heart could withstand the loss and struggle that the people of Biloxi have endured. I had the opportunity to talk to one of the families we were helping. The mother, Renee, told me that she, her son (Gregory), and her neighbor (Frank), were able to get out and leave, only to come back to a house that was wind beaten and doused with 27 feet of water. Sixty percent of their neighbors remained during the hurricane and 100% of them lost practically everything. Forty-seven people had to be rescued on their street from one of the few two story houses that was high enough to keep them from the rising flood. It’s been over four months since Katrina and this particular street has barely been touched. One resident commented that they felt like the abandoned street of Biloxi. The first images our team of volunteers saw was that of gutted houses, tarped roofs, trashed streets, and boxes or tents against the sides of the houses holding the few things that were found to be salvageable. It would be so easy for people like Renee just to give up, but their hearts wouldn’t have it. They are rebuilding and surviving. They have the attitude of Jesus and a faith in both themselves and in Him that just floors me. We might be coming to help them, but they continually ask what they can do to help us. For example, several people along the street we are building on go to help serve at the church mission set up to help volunteers and others in the community. It is Biloxi’s way of saying, “God bless you for volunteering to work.” But all I want to say is: “God bless you, for loving Jesus so much.” This trip has made me wonder I would have the same faith and endurance if Knoxville wasn’t there one day. My small group and I had a good discussion about this question. The comment was made that even though we are here now, we are still only experiencing Biloxi’s stories second hand. We have gotten past the media’s interpretation of Katrina, but we still haven’t experienced anything like this first hand. Would I have bounced back like they have been able to down here? Are enough of my treasures in Heaven so that if all I had was lost, you would know that my heart lies with Christ? I hope the answer to that question would be yes, and this trip has reminded me that now more then ever I need to live with my heart on fire for Christ not just on these mission trips, but everyday, regardless of whatever craziness I experience in my life. I want people to know where my heart lies, and that it lies with Christ.

- Leslie Wallace
Group Golf - Team 2

Friday, December 30, 2005

On The Bus

It’s Friday morning, if my memory serves. Time tends to blur in the whirlwind of activity that is this mission trip. I’m sitting on the bus, awaiting departure for another day on the roof on Magnolia Street in Biloxi.

Yesterday morning the bus took us along Highway 90 and the Gulf Coast between Gulfport and Biloxi. We pulled out of the church parking lot with a steady hum of morning chatter. As we turned onto 90, that hum disappeared as an “awe-ful” silence descended over the bus. Although I’d been to Louisiana earlier, and had seen the destruction in Slidell and in St. Bernard, I suspect that this was the first time many on the bus had seen the effects of the power of Katrina.

Even for me the sights were often overwhelming: hundred-year-old oaks toppled like bowling pins; piles of rubble that once were mansions; 3 story stairwells leading to nowhere; high rise hotels and casinos with the first two floors reduced to empty concrete caverns; and of course, the photogenic floating casinos on the wrong side of the street.

The silence on the bus was punctuated by occasional exclamations of surprise or amazement at some particularly striking example of Katrina’s fury. These sights provoke difficult and perennial questions for Christians: Was Katrina evil? If so, where was our God? If our God is all good and all powerful and in control, what happened on the Gulf Coast on August 29? Is what we are doing here an “act of God” or of selfless good, or merely an inadequate response to much deeper problems of poverty and inequity and injustice in the richest country in the world?

I wish I had answers. I hope we as a country continue to be willing to ask the hard questions and struggle to find those answers, wherever the search may lead.

The bus turned off Highway 90 and drove the few blocks to the poor neighborhood behind the expensive beachfront. The morning chatter resumed and we piled off the bus to start another day on the roof on Magnolia Street.

Dan Terpstra
Group Golf – Team 2

Becoming Disciples

If you can get up again on the fourth day, then you can get up day after day. By this time we are beyond tiredness but each day brings a new, interesting aspect of the project, new people to help and a better understanding of the team members we work with. How is it with the families that live here? For them it is not four days of getting up again, but four months. Like some of them, we are sleeping in a tent and it is chilly at night. Like them we are frustrated when the coordination doesn’t work out, when the supplies are promised but not delivered. We wait. They have waited for a very long time.

But the projects are moving forward. Some roofs are complete. From our roof top we can see three other crews on roofs. Beside our house there are two FEMA trailers, one of which our house owner lives in. The neighbor across the street watches all day as we work. He speaks to us with a dialect we can barely understand but we make out that he has no food to offer us but there are some cold drinks in his refrigerator. Another crew reports that “Linda’s gumbo” is unbelievable.

Yesterday we met Liz, the mother of three foster kids. She and her husband both teach high school in Bay St. Louis. The insurance refuses to pay anything from a house that was completely destroyed. All they found were some pots and pans and many pieces of pottery from their large collection of mugs, teapots and platters. Many beautiful pieces survived but were still covered in muck four months latter. They are overwhelmed by life and amazed that a crew is at their door to help. We cleaned and stored for them until they can get back on their feet in their own house. Another mother of three whose entire house we mucked out is living in a shelter. She is unable to store anything and her kids could not understand why all their things had to be discarded. Everywhere are piles of peoples lost dreams. The trash pickup cannot keep ahead of the work. It will be years before the towns of Biloxi and Bay St. Louis are able to put Katrina behind them. Yet the mood is upbeat, people are hopeful that things are getting better.

Bonhoeffer writes that discipleship comes with a cost, that there is no cheap grace. Many of the young people here are high school or college age and have begun to struggle with this idea of discipleship. They know that something is being asked of them and they are working hard. I am continually surprised by the joy that dawns through these young people as they gradually unmask their cool airs and you see what makes them laugh and shine. The older folk celebrate their aches and pains and gladly pass the heavy lifting jobs to the kids. It is a microcosm of the passing of faith and hope.

- John Drake


It’s our third day of work. We split our large group into two smaller groups in order to work more efficiently. Our groups came together at lunch to see how things were going. While eating my lunch, I got to watch some people talk to Cassie Massey, the owner of the house we were working on. It seemed to give her some relief to get to share her story with some of us. She shared about her friends being trapped on their roofs for up to 6 hours. Some houses were completely under water. She also shared the sad story of a friend of hers who had bad arthritis and didn’t have the ability to get to his roof. The man ended up drowning because he had no help. She also talked about trying to rebuild her neighborhood. She lost all her belongings except one bed. Underneath all of Miss Massey’s sadness and loss she expressed joy that we were able to help her start back to a normal life. It is amazing how much it helps those people just to talk to them. By the end of the day, Cassie Massey had a new roof, a new smile, and was well on her way to a new life. It was a day full of hard work and strong emotion.

- Alan Harris
Team Juliet – Group 5

Serving and Receiving

It's funny how we attempt to serve other people but always end up receiving more than we ever give. Today at our work site Mrs. Linda, whose roof we were reapiring, spent the entire morning preparing us homemade crazy delicious Mississippi style gumbo. YUMMY!

Group 7

Thursday, December 29, 2005

Unexpected Grace

My God is a God of surprises. On our drive down to Mississippi, I was certain that I knew what He wanted to teach me through this experience – but in the span of 48 hours He has begun teaching me about something completely different.

We have two jobs here in Biloxi: “mucking” (cleaning out) houses and roofing houses. As we talked with the owner of our first house, we learned that the residents on her street, Magnolia Avenue, called it the “forgotten street”. It was clear that Katrina had caused her to lose most of her joy. In that same hour though, we witnessed sheer elation from a young boy, Gregory, whose family was getting a new roof. The contrast was truly striking.

Later, as we were mucking a house, a girl in my small group named Genevieve came to somewhat of a realization: we weren’t mucking junk; we were throwing this family’s (former) most valued possessions into the street – things that used to have so much meaning. The fact that we were treating these possessions like trash bothered Genevieve so much, but later she realized something that God was trying to reveal to her: these were only possessions – and there is so much more to this life than things.

On the drive home from this first day of work, we saw an incredible sunset. The beauty of this showed me perhaps the most important lesson God has been trying to teach me: He is in control. He is sovereign over this all. He may have given me some surprises, but He is surprised by nothing. He reminded me that Magnolia Avenue is not the forgotten street; instead, it is a place where He is showing Himself more clearly every day.

Jamie Butler
Group Bravo – Team 2

We Have a Roof!

A work crew in Biloxi completed our first roof today, cleaning off the old shingles and installing new architectural shingles on a residence. This is a new thing for the relief efforts in the Gulf region, most will not attack this task due to liability and training issues. The mucking out, though, is about done and new tasks need to be tackled. Our own Joe Fielden of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Knoxville, in conjunction with Fritz Schilling and the teams on the ground in Mississippi, mapped out an ambitious plan to put roofs onto houses so that people could then more easily continue the work of wiring and plumbing and sheetrocking that cannot be done until a roof is on.

We have 9 crews on roofs in neighborhoods in Biloxi where insurance is either non-existent or folks are way under-insured. We have completed the first roof today using the system that Joe and Paul Risk, our man on the scene, built and trained us on. We have nine more roofs underway and will begin five new ones on Friday. What a joy it is to see the results of your work, to experience the new and exciting next steps with a family that has been out of their home for more than four months now. The excitement among our folks, most of whom have never even been on a roof, much less installed one, is high and the energy level continues to be excellent.

We will write more as we go along and give a full report upon our return. This is exciting work that we are doing and fun. Spring Break will be upon us before you know it and we hope that many more East Tennessee Presbyterians will want to spend it roofing.

Peace and grace,
Steve Benz
Sierra Group – Workteam One

The Bay St. Louis Experience

I’ve participated in a “mucking out” crew in Bay St. Louis rather than in a roofing crew in Biloxi. I got to view the full impact of Katrina’s fury. On the outskirts of Bay St. Louis I began to see the “Wizard of Oz” houses. Buildings uprooted and deposited in unusual locations in unusual orientations. We moved in to start cleaning out some houses that were still standing. Part of the crew I was with tackled a two story house where the water had gone over the roof. My team ripped out dry wall in a large house that saw three feet of water. The retired, disabled homeowner had ridden out the storm while the water rose to the top of his bed. Things had dried out pretty well in the past four months so it was mostly hot, dusty work. We finished the day by driving down to the gulf. Over several square miles it looked like a bomb had hit. All that remained were foundations covered by timbers and an occasional roof. It was a stunning contrast to have this incredible devastation on one side of the road with a glorious sunset over the gulf on the other side.

The first day was just a warm-up for our second day in Bay St. Louis. We worked in a house today that was about a quarter mile from the gulf. The inside was something out of the news stories we’ve seen on TV. Mold all the way up the walls and even across the ceiling. The light fixtures attached to the ceiling were completely full of water. We hauled out all of the furniture and gutted every inch of the interior. We also spent some time helping the homeowner salvage some pictures of her children. A large part of my day was spent cutting out soggy carpet and hauling it to the street. My work clothes are now safely packed away and will hopefully never again see the light of day.

I have had two very emotional experiences in these first two days. The first was from viewing the large FEMA “X”s written on the sides of the houses. These were used to record when the houses had been inspected. One of the quadrants indicated the number of dead found in the house. We never saw any with a number other than zero but I still found these “X”s incredibly poignant. The other experience was less ennobling. While working in close quarters with sledge hammers and crow bars swinging in every direction I became frightened and angry. Rather than try to deal with this in a constructive manner, I became sullen, sarcastic and rude. This experience brought out a dark side in me that I recognized but couldn’t control. This evening I asked for my team’s forgiveness and understanding and I prayed for God’s guidance.

Tomorrow we move out of the muck and up onto the roofs with the other teams. We pray for continuing good weather.

- Dave Mullins
Group Delta - Team 4

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On The Roof

This morning began at 6:15, way too early for this earliest class at 10:00 college girl. Breakfast was good: grits, eggs, and cinnamon rolls. After breakfast, we had our “Roofing 101” training. Quite a debate ensued about whether or not the shingles were to “butt” up against each other or tuck underneath one another. Finally, an expert (the construction head) was called in and it was decided that the shingles should butt. Then, we went to the ladder station and discussed safety and had the opportunity to go up on practice roof. I did it, and it was a little scary, especially the going-down-off-the-roof part. I survived, though! After loading ladders and boards onto trailers, my group, Work Crew 2, boarded the bus and headed to Biloxi. We passed D’Iberville, the town in which I worked over Fall Break. It made me miss the people I met there and wonder how they are and how their rebuilding efforts are going.

Once we arrived on site, our crew chief assessed the houses that we were assigned and our work crew began unloading the trailers of ladders. As this all was taking place, an adorable 5 year old named Gregory peaked out the door of his house and ordered us to “get to work fixin’ his roof.” Gregory looked on during the day with his Mom telling him to stay inside because he didn’t have shoes on and had a cold. He really brightened the day for me with his smiles and hugs and helped me remember why we’re here.

After the ladders were set up, it was time to go up on the roof. Some people stripped shingles on the roof of one house while the same task was begun on the house next door. Felt was laid after all the shingles were removed. We finished laying the felt on half of one house and about a third of another house. No worries; everyone lived to tell about their first times on the roof. During some of the down time we had, several members of our small group helped another work crew down the street. We cleaned up the drywall debris they had ripped off the walls of the house.

The work day ended about 5:30 and we headed to the high school to shower. This was an interesting experience for the girls who were reprimanded by some Baptist men for using “their” showers. We had private showers, but the boys had communal ones. We hear the situation is being worked on and hopefully tomorrow we’ll all have private showers and no angry Baptists.

Dinner was yummy: ham, rolls, coleslaw, and mashed potatoes. We worshipped and then met with our small groups. I’m now sitting in the dining hall grateful for the wireless internet! I’m worn out but so glad to be here. Being here for the second time gives me a little perspective. I can tell that progress has been made; more stores and businesses are open and all the traffic lights are working. People are beginning to rebuild. All this is encouraging, and yet it is unbelievable how much there is still to do. I’m glad for the time we have and appreciative of all the support from back home. We’ll see you Monday! Thank you for your continued prayers.

Claire Harris
Golf Group - Team 2

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Impressions from Gulfport

I walked outside tonight and saw church vans parked all around a tour bus. New Providence Presbyterian from Maryville, Rivermont Presbyterian Church of Chattanooga, Fountain City Pres, all around the Westminster Presbyterian Church of Gulfport parking lot. Two hundred and fifty people. 250! 182 of them from East Tennessee and our congregations. It takes 9 hours to get here, except for the 50 folks from Hamilton, Ontario who have joined us after 24 hours and five minutes on a bus. Non-stop! We have registered all these folks, fed them spaghetti, educated them on what to expect (and they really have no idea what to expect!) and will soon be sleeping nearly on top of each other all around the floors and pews and in every nook and cranny of this great building. We are all tired and we don’t know what tired really is yet. The excitement is palpable in the room and everyone is pumped about being here, apprehensive about what lies ahead of us and knowing that God is holding us in God’s hands in all that we do.

The people who have given up a week of their Christmas break, and those of us who are giving a week of our vacations, are representing you well down here in Gulfport. We have met and met and discussed and met again, worshipped together and praised God’s name and asked God to be in our work. We will work tomorrow in Bay St. Louis mucking out houses and in Biloxi repairing and replacing roofs, teenagers and senior adults alike. This is our first mixed ages trip, with families and college students and gray hair in evidence everywhere. God is in this work.

Earlier today Cindy, Bethany and I drove down US90 between Gulfport and Biloxi and saw the devastation and were awed by the destructive force that nature unleashed here. Words cannot describe it. Pictures cannot do it justice. It is my prayer that as many of us who are able will work on future trips to help the poor and homeless, the uninsured and under insured recover their lives. If you do, when you do, you will discover God’s grace as you have never understood it before. If you have ever suffered a catastrophic loss in your life you have some knowledge of what this trip means to the folks who live here. It means that God is alive in their lives and that God has sent us, that God loves them enough to send others to be a part of their lives at this time. And it means that God has sent them to be a part of our lives. And we will never be the same again. Thanks be to God.

Peace and grace

Steve Benz

Sierra Group – Team 1

Saturday, December 17, 2005

Blogging from Biloxi

As of Friday, December 16th, enrollment for the Christmas Work Trip has reached 190 souls! In order to keep everyone more involved in what's going on down in Mississippi, we hope to try something a little different on this trip. We're going to try to blog daily during the trip. While we may not exactly be 'Blogging from Biloxi' as the title above indicates, we'll try to post from Westminster Presbyterian Church in Gulfport with immediate feedback from those of us on the worksites. This may be tricky, since we don't know exactly what kind of connectivity we'll have, but we'll try our best to make it work, and to make you part of the loop. We invite and encourage comments and qustions from you to make this experience as interactive as possible for everyone.