It's not difficult to understand why people go down to the Gulf Coast to volunteer. Three years after Katrina, many folks are waiting to have their homes rebuilt and their lives restored. There is work to be done and a system in place that makes working and helping possible. Folks from Lexington, Kentucky have been going, alone and in groups, since the week after the storm. It's possible to drive to New Orleans or Biloxi in one day, and to work for a week or a long weekend and make a difference. It's a no-brainer! The organization that our church works through has hosted more than 1, 600 volunteers just this fall. Religious organizations, civic groups, and schools send teams of volunteers and find a warm welcome. People like to be useful. Most people enjoy doing something that helps others. And people like to be a part of something bigger than themselves. Thank God people still go.
But here's a question: why do people go back?
Doug Roederer, the man who coordinates what appears to be evolving as the Unitarian Universalist Church of Lexington's annual Christmas Biloxi trip, has been back dozens of times. He's helped restore houses and built entire homes from the ground up. Yesterday, out first day on the job this year, a volunteer asked me: what do you think drives him?
After all, we could work closer to home. There are plenty of folks who need homes in Kentucky. But there's something about Biloxi that makes me convince people ages fifteen to sixty to leave their homes and families on Christmas Day and head south to sleep in cramped quarters and pound nails or carry boards. It's about so much more than the work. After all, we could probably contribute the funds we raise to travel and rent accomodations for the week, and skilled laborers could be hired to do the job better in half the time, if all that mattered was the product.
It's the process.
Driving South, we see that the Gulf Coast is miles, not worlds away. Meeting the family whose home we will build, hearing their stories, we understand why they want to stay in the neighborhoods their people have lived in for generations. On the job site, we can't help but compare the gleaming casinos a few blocks away, rebuilt within months, to the tattered and still vacant shells of homes begging for attention around us. Nowhere is a more stark and visual symbol of the ineffectiveness and inhumanity of our government and our institutions apparent than in East Biloxi. Why, one cannot help asking, are these people dependent upon volunteers to build their homes more than three years after the storm? Why are billions of dollars available for war and bailouts, when private foundations and donors must restore neighborhoods and dwellings devestated through an act of Nature? Hard questions, inadequate answers.
But then, there's the joy. Neighbors come by with food. Local folks stop to admire the progress. A pile of lumber becomes a home. Since our group invites some of Lexington's exchange students, people from Africa, Europe, and Asia meet one another and form the deep connections only possible through shared work. Love grows and barriers tumble as walls go up.
Humans need that kind of love. We need, as our Wendell Berry says, real work to do and we need real connections. We need the process as much or even more than the recipients need the product. That's why we go back, and why we will go back, for as long as we can.