When Christina, 17, went to New Orleans to repair a home damaged by Hurricane Katrina, she realized that helping others strengthened her faith.
When I learned my church was sending another mission team, its 18th, to help rebuild homes in New Orleans last August, I felt compelled to go. I was surprised that survivors of Hurricane Katrina, which struck New Orleans two years before, still needed help. My older cousin Melvianne had gone the previous year. She told me I would work harder than I ever have. I felt that I had to go, that someone there was waiting for me to help them, and they would help me as well.
My church’s mission leader, Joey Beason, organized my team of six to spend seven grueling days volunteering for the Christian organization, Service International (S.I.). For the first two days we mowed a church lawn for hours. The sun beat on our backs while we hacked away at the 13-inch-tall grass. I had never worked so hard in my life. On the third day we started work on a home.
That afternoon, as we were driving through New Orleans I noticed houses had a large X with numbers sprayed on the front door. The numbers at the top, “9-15,” represented the date the house was searched. The numbers at the bottom, 0, 1 or 2, represented the number of people found dead inside. It was unimaginable. But it was easier to suppress my feelings than to deal with them in the moment.
Then we arrived in front of a one-story house with boarded windows. Inside I saw that rebuilding had begun: the walls were painted white and the floors were tiled, but the house wasn’t expected to be finished for three months. Our tasks were to fill in cracks and holes in the doors and cabinets, then sand and paint them.
Fixing the holes took only a few hours, then we started painting. I reached high and low to paint every door, cabinet and crevice in the three-bedroom house. My arms got tired, but we took breaks. I went slow, trying to make sure I wouldn’t spill paint on the newly tiled floors. This was more gratifying than mowing because working on the house helped people directly.
During the day drivers honked and shouted praises out of their windows to us. A police officer even pulled over to thank us. I realized that we were spreading hope even to those whose homes we weren’t working on.
A few days later we visited the Lower Ninth Ward—the most devastated area of the city. The image still haunts me. Shattered windows, boarded up doors, caved in rooftops, grass and weeds that stood 7 feet tall, upside-down cars, mounds of rubble, and mold growing outside the houses. Shockingly it looked exactly the same as the news had shown it two years before; the only thing missing was the water that flooded the streets. “There are hundreds of homes,” I thought. “And the one home I’m working on is merely a drop in the bucket.” I knew it was impossible but I wanted to help them all.
The next day when we went back to the house, I heard an unfamiliar voice and saw a woman smiling at me. I knew who she was immediately, the owner, and I ran to embrace her. This was Shaquita, the 48-year-old mother and grandmother who lost everything during the storm. Sad is an understatement of what I saw when I looked at her. I saw the pain in her eyes. But then she spoke with gratitude. She said, “I still cry at night because our own people rob and take from one another. But people like you fly across the country to help us. Thank you so much.” That’s when I realized that these homes were more than just wood, plaster and a roof; these homes which had been destroyed, held generations of family memories and legacies. Shaquita is one more person whose prayers have been answered and family has been restored, who’s been given not only hope, but a home, a place to live, to start over.
Helping those in need is what I should be doing
That night I opened my Bible and as I was reading I felt a gratification that I had never felt before. I knew that my aches and pains contributed to helping someone believe that if one has faith and trusts God with all their heart, he does answer prayers. I felt a deep calmness and assurance; I knew that if God helped this family, he would surely help me with the barriers in my life. The Bible teaches that people reap what they sew. I did this not only to help others, but to find myself, and the place God has in my life.
On our last day working on Shaquita’s house, I stood in her dining room and closed my eyes for a moment. I could see her family sitting at a new table saying grace before a meal. As they thanked God and asked him to bless all the volunteers, they also thanked him for their food and new home.
Before I left for New Orleans, some friends and family questioned why I would pay $500 to fly across the country to work in the thick Southern heat to help a family I had never met. Seeing the joy in Shaquita’s eyes made it worthwhile.
I had remembered seeing images from Katrina, but TV did not capture how bad the devastation was. After being around the destruction, I no longer care about sharing a room with my younger sister; many people in New Orleans didn’t even have a roof over their heads. Before this trip I always thought people who were blessed should help those less fortunate. I never felt it was my obligation to do so, but now I do. It’s what I want to do. Going to New Orleans gave me a new perspective on life. “To whom much is given, much is required.” (Luke 12:48). I realized how this scripture pertained to my life.
This year I am going to go on more mission trips with my church. Hopefully we will continue to spread hope and the word of God. This trip was one of the most satisfying acts I have ever done.
A version of this article first appeared on madashellclub.net, a website for essays.
Other stories by this author:
I got caught. Feeling unprepared for a quiz, Christina, 17, peeked at her neighbor’s paper. (May – June 2007)
Enough violence! Christina, 17, says a stranger’s death made her look at violence in her community differently. (January – February 2007)