Members of the Messiah College employee service team— including Naima Quarles-Burley (center, with nail gun), college ministries intern, and Travis Eichelberger, son of David Eichelberger, general maintenance mechanic—work to repair a roof destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. The team spent ten days in Alabama and Mississippi and worked on two reconstruction projects.
Building understanding in the wake of Hurricane Katrina
More than a year after Hurricane Katrina tore through the U.S. Gulf Coast, leaving utter devastation in its wake, the rebuilding process is, in many ways, just beginning. As of late summer, Federal Emergency Management Agency officials estimated that it would still take years to physically restore the homes and businesses leveled by the Gulf Coast storm. Fortunately, volunteers have responded in record numbers: in August, the Corporation for National and Community Service reported that more than half a million Americans have already assisted with Hurricane Katrina relief and recovery efforts, and every day more are arriving to help.
Fully recovering from the storm, however, will take more than the physical power required to renovate and repair buildings. Hurricane Katrina shattered communities and ruined lives; it exposed entrenched divisions along racial and socioeconomic lines throughout the South.
Keeping these challenges in mind, a Messiah College employee service team—comprised of a cross-section of employees and their families—traveled to the Gulf Coast in July to work on two projects: installing a new roof on a home in Grand Bay, Ala., and repairing the interior of a house in Pascagoula, Miss.
Initially, the experience of living and working among people whose lives had been turned upside down by the tragedy was overwhelming for Chris Staecker, assistant professor of mathematics, who volunteered alongside his wife, Jen. “I was nervous that we would give off the wrong impression—the idea that we were coming here for a week to completely change these peoples’ lives.”
Fortunately, Staecker’s reservations were unfounded—in fact, it was the residents who had a profound effect on members of the team. Naima Quarles-Burnley, former special projects manager for the Agapé Center and Student Affairs, and current College ministries intern, recalls what Margaret, a homeowner from Mississippi, told her: “Sometimes it takes a storm to get the junk out of our lives.” The resident spoke of how she had been broken down emotionally and spiritually, but affirmed that God was restoring her and making her stronger through the challenges. The woman’s story of faith “was very inspirational to me,” says Quarles-Burnley.
Team members also spent time with local residents, including members of the Green Pastures Christian Center, a local church where the team slept and received meals. Through conversations with these residents, team members discovered the kind of ongoing change taking place throughout the Gulf Coast—a change in which the team, as recovery volunteers, had played a modest role. “The members of the church were very glad that we had come,” says Quarles-Burnley. “They told us, ‘this is a new Mississippi. The races are coming together, the churches are coming together.’ Somehow, the storm is helping to bring people together. It tore apart homes, but it’s bringing together lives.”
—Devin Thomas ’09