Jubilee officers roll up sleeves to clear ruined houses during gathering in Cedar Rapids, Iowa

March 27, 2009

The Rev. Canon Debbie Shew gripped her crowbar and tugged a sheet of rotted paneling from the wall of a flood-ravaged home and thought about the carpenter who nailed it up. She thought about the children who grew up there, the family that called the house home.

"I thought about leaving them a note," said Shew, jubilee officer for the Diocese of Atlanta. "It might be cool for them to find it and know that people from all over – from Georgia and Puerto Rico and Kansas and New York – all helped to clean it up."

Shew was one of nearly three dozen diocesan jubilee officers from all over the country and the Caribbean, and others associated with the Episcopal Church's Jubilee Ministry network, who met here this week to discuss the 27-year-old network of about 600 programs aimed at alleviating poverty.

Participants spent March 25, their first full day together, rolling up their sleeves and doing the dirty work of helping rebuild a city laid low. In June 2008, the Cedar River overflowed its banks. In that summer, the devastation exceeded 500-year flood plains. Some 20,000 people were forced to evacuate and an estimated 5,400 homes were left ruined. It was, said chroniclers of the city's reclamation project, Iowa's "storm of the millennium."

Nine months later, the city is still drying out and cleaning up. Whole neighborhoods still contain empty shells of ruined houses, the water lines clearly visible high on their walls. Cedar Rapids' catastrophe didn't get the national attention that New Orleans or Galveston, Texas received after hurricanes Katrina and Ike, but the devastation was no less real.

That's why the Rev. Chris Johnson, the Episcopal Church's program officer for Domestic Justice and Jubilee Ministries, decided to schedule the meeting in Cedar Rapids. He wanted to make sure the city's pain did not go unnoticed by the church.

"I didn't know what to expect, but I just knew it was important that we find a way to embrace the community," said Johnson. "We had to meet somewhere, and I'm glad we can meet here. Now people from all these points will take these stories about what happened in Cedar Rapids away with them."

Johnson and Shew were among a dozen volunteers who spent the day mucking out two houses, one of them untouched by any cleanup effort. Across town, another crew of Episcopalians worked hanging dry wall in the basement of St. Wenceslaus Church, a Catholic church in the heavily damaged Czech Village neighborhood.

Still others spent the day in the kitchen at Christ Episcopal Church in Cedar Rapids, baking thousands of cookies, brownies and cakes that will continue to fuel the reclamation work long after the visitors have gone home. The sweets will help feed the hundreds of volunteers that continue to come to Cedar Rapids every week.

"We must have more work projects like this," said Phillip Mantle, jubilee officer for the Diocese of Chicago, who spent the day at St. Wenceslaus. "It's not good enough just to go to a hotel and have a meeting. We need to be of service in the community. And besides, I learned a lot of things about building today. I learned how to do framing. And I learned that if you're just a quarter of an inch off when you cut, you're in big trouble."

The Rev. Colleen Lewis, jubilee officer for Diocese of Nebraska, took up a broom and began sweeping at St. Wenceslaus. She's taken numerous mission trips to the Dominican Republic, where she's helped on construction projects. But this was her first such project so close to home.

"It's been a long time since I've done drywalling, so they'd have to coach me on that," she said. "But sweeping, I can do. Sweeping, that's a deacon thing."

Lisa Butler, director of congregational life at Christ Church, has been coordinating that church's response to the flood. The church, which is hosting the jubilee officers' event and providing meals for the visitors, is able to house teams of up to 20 volunteers per night. Christ Church, which is also home to a jubilee ministry, has been booked to capacity through much of March as school-age volunteers from around the country have come to Cedar Rapids during their spring breaks to assist with clean-up efforts. After a brief lull in April and May, Butler says she'll be booked again come June and through much of the summer.

Many of the churches in Cedar Rapids have come together to form Faithful Response, a group that coordinates the work of most faith-based volunteers. The group works with the United Way, which assigns Americorps workers to accompany volunteer groups to projects that are identified as being that day's priority.

The volunteers' efforts produce results in two ways: they provide clean-up labor and the Federal Emergency Management Agency grants $19 in matching assistance money for every volunteer hour logged. So far, volunteers have generated more than $900,000 in federal assistance grants.

Butler said she expects the clean-up efforts to take at least another five years. But she said the benefits that have come to the community through its response to the catastrophe will last far longer than that. "When this (clean-up) is all finished, we'll still have issues we have to address in this community," she said. "The coalition that all the faith-based groups have formed needs to stay strong."

By early afternoon on March 25, the crew had moved on to its second house. Inside, amid the ruined furniture and fetid carpeting, they found a birth certificate, a diploma, ruined photo albums, military medals, old letters.

"It became a sacred space," said Deacon Stephen Shanks, jubilee officer for the Diocese of Alabama, who witnessed a similar phenomenon when helping clean out houses ruined by Hurricane Katrina. "People became very quiet when we were handling teddy bears and birth certificates. It was very personal. This was what was left of someone's former life."

Shew got out her camera and began photographing some of the items, so that at least they would be preserved in some form before going out in the trash. She also took the military medals, in hopes of cleaning them off and somehow returning them to their rightful owner.

"I sat there thinking that if some stranger was going through my stuff, I'd want them to take a picture of my Hannah's baby book," she said. "By the end, I felt like I knew a lot about that family."