Twenty-three months since the wind and waters of Katrina ravaged the Mississippi and Louisiana coastlines, little has changed on the beachfront of Bay St. Louis. Christ Episcopal Church is one of the few structures on the beach to show signs of life. From July 17-22, it swelled with energy as the Provincial Youth Event (PYE) from Province IV moved in and literally dug into their mission.
Each day, 15 work teams of about 10 youths and at least one adult endured 90-degree heat and 80-percent humidity as they traveled around Bay St. Louis to work on rebuilding projects coordinated by Mission on the Bay, the youth work camp on the grounds of Christ Church, sponsored by the Diocese of Mississippi, Lutheran Episcopal Services in Mississippi and Episcopal Relief and Development.
Carl Curry received work groups from PYE for several days at his home on Easterbrook Street. Just prior to the storm, Curry, who had retired from the San Francisco Police Department, had begun renovating the home where he was born in 1937. Katrina flooded the modest three-bedroom dwelling, forcing Curry to move his family to North Carolina.
"If I had this group of volunteers for the next 10 days, I could bring my family home," said Curry. "The volunteers mean everything. For the past 120 days, it's all been volunteers here -- from the East and West coast -- and now these 150 young people -- just for them to come to a place like this is amazing, two years after Katrina -- because other folks are beginning to forget," said Curry.
Rusty and Malcolm Veazey, also residents of Bay St. Louis, are struggling to complete repairs to their home and property near the Jordan River.
"In five hours, eight of you do what would take Malcolm and I weeks to get done," said Rusty Veazey of the PYE work group that spent the day repairing and landscaping a retaining wall.
"Everybody [who comes] keeps saying, 'We're not doing much,' but you have no idea how much you're doing, because everything is still so bleak and ugly, and it's so hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel," said Rusty, barely able to keep her emotions under control. "You could be home swimming and having fun with your friends and enjoying your summer, and instead, you're here giving to us, and that is what let people know that God heard us. We prayed for so long after it was over, thinking that maybe that God doesn't care; and then you guys came."
In response to Veazey's expressions, James Taylor, a participant from Orlando, said, "I feel like I've helped someone get their life back ... similar to how it was before the storm."
Mary Gray of Tupelo, Mississippi, added, "It makes me think of the movie the Constant Gardner, where one of the main characters ... has always had the opinion that it is hard to make a difference because you can't help everyone ... but these are some people we can help and every little bit makes a difference."
"You give us hope -- the idea of how valuable you are to us, I think is quite simple," said Malcolm Veazey. "You give us hope. You make people want to save their lives and not give it up -- I see Jesus in all of you; I see Jesus all over that. These kids would not have come in this heat to work as hard at they do if they did not have Jesus in their heart."
Each day's work at PYE was complemented by an evening of fellowship, small group time and careful telling of the Katrina story through video and personal narratives. In addition to the serious nature of the stories and reflections, a great deal of excitement was displayed through song and other presentations. Boyce Whiteside, a senior from Wilmington, North Carolina, raised more than $2,000 through a project at his church. His congregation was moved to increase those funds to an even $3,000 which Whiteside presented to Mississippi Bishop Duncan Gray.
"After Chuck Culpepper came to our diocesan celebration and did a piece about 'Hope among Chaos,' I was just sitting in class one day, just thinking about someway I could cook and raise money at the same time. A friend of mine suggested I make a meal to raise money for New Orleans victims. It was perfect because I didn't know how to cook any of that kind of food, so I could learn it and raise money at the same time," said Whiteside.
Whiteside researched the recipes as part of a school project and then developed a meal for about 100 of his home church members, organized the event and sold tickets to raise the funds.
Gray was also presented with $1,000 in Wal-Mart gift cards by the youth group from St. David's in Columbia, South Carolina.
Gray, who was present for and participated in a significant portion of the six-day event, was surprised and genuinely touched by the young persons' generosity.
"I wanted to be here to welcome this latest group of volunteers to the coming to the coast and to say 'Thank You' in as deep a way as I can," said Gray. "The people on the coast could not have done -- in some cases would not have survived quite literally -- without the care and concern and work from the outside."
"What I hope that the participants get from this event is a sense of the enormity of the tragedy and of their capabilities to make a difference. We live in a world where sometimes the individual forgets that they can make a difference, and I hope to build on that idealism of youth, because they can and are making a difference," said Gray.
"I'm really pleased about the work of the youth network in Province IV," said Cookie Cantwell, provincial coordinator for youth. "About six years ago, this group claimed we wanted to make mission the focus for Province IV youth ministries. We did our first mission experience in Berea, Kentucky; it was so successful and the kids had such a wonderful experience we decided to do it again. When Katrina happened, this was the natural thing to do."
The event was planned over 15 months by a design team composed of four young people, two adults and the provincial coordinator. Along with the mission focus, PYE activities are carefully balanced to make up a wholly enthused event: one third of the focus is servanthood; one third to encourage the youth to claim their leadership in the church and in the world; and one third to help them grow spiritually, through liturgy and music, small group time, and their work experience.
"You are forced out of what's comfortable and what's known to you and into living into someone else's pain: touching it hearing it smelling it -- so many emotions are set into play," said Cantwell.
"It's kind of overwhelming," said Kevin Caskey, a member of the design team from the Diocese of Western North Carolina. "I'd been to see the site, but to see how much work is still to be done is amazing."
"Another reason this event is so important, is because if a young person learns about servant ministry through doing it as a teenager, then they are more likely do 'diakonia' for the rest of their lives," said the Rev. Sue Von Rautenkranz, Canon for Youth Ministry in the Diocese of Upper South Carolina.
"Part of it is teaching them how to lead; it's not just sticking them out there to flounder," said Von Rautenkranz. "It's about giving them opportunities to use the gifts and skills that they have; it's about teaching them how to use gifts and skills shown to them or given them by others; and it's about them teaching us new things and taking it all into the world."
"Eighteen months ago, I had no idea we'd still be in a Quonset hut and a doublewide with nothing on either side of us as far as we can see," said the Rev. Elizabeth Wheatley-Jones, Canon Missioner at Christ Church.
"I can see so much transformation in the natural world; when I came here, there was no grass and now we are covered with green; the natural world is rebounding in some powerful ways and the human structures and institutions are lagging behind."
"But hope is prevalent -- sitting in there with all these kids who are excited as if this is the newest thing; ready to go and help in whatever small way they can, and, even though small, important to those people whoever they are."
"Yet, in this strange dichotomy of newness and things that haven't happened which I thought would have happened -- hope prevails."