Friday, November 16, 2007

Memorial at Back Bay -- the crew

For a slide show, click here.

Hanging up the hammers

Let's start at the end. About 20 of us were sitting around the living room in our trailer, having finished off a shrimp boil put on by Don Morgan from the Back Bay staff. Our group of nine shared the meal with about a dozen folks from Congregational UCC in St. Charles, Ill. And then people began to talk about what the experience of the last week meant to them.

For some, it was the satisfaction of the work they did on the houses. For others, it was coming face to face with people who are homeless. For still others, it was the joy of new relationships with people from their own congregation and meeting those from others. Some talked about the conversations they had with people who had survived the hurricane. One woman from Illinois said what she saw this week was what church is really all about. Many reflected on the vast array and energy of volunteers from the UCC and from other denominations who have come to the Gulf Coast and New Orleans to help people.

There were reflections on the things that disquieted people as well. Several mentioned the sense of discouragement about the long-term prospects for Biloxi, to say nothing of the poor who live there. Others talked about the greed that has siphoned off recovery money to the wealthy that should have gone to programs to aid low-income people.

Those of us working on Darrell's house wrapped up our work at mid-day, having reframed all the walls and installed five new windows. There is more work to be done there, but that will be picked up by the next group. We all gathered with Darrell outside his home for good wishes to each other and a prayer together. And then we were on our way.

Two links you might want to pursue:
A column for the Cap Times about gratitude
An audio of a sermon about the trip -- click on the Nov. 18 service.

It's been a great week. Thanks to all of you back home for your care and support and prayers on our journey. See you soon.

Mississippi leaves out the poor

The Nov. 16 New York Times has a fascinating story about how Mississippi has used only 10 percent of federal post-Katrina aid to help its low income residents. You can read the details by clicking on the headline: Poor Lag in Hurricane Aid From Mississippi

On Nov. 25, The Washington Post ran an article that looked at the disparity in Biloxi's recovery. You can click on the headline: Biloxi's Recovery Shows Divide

Thursday, November 15, 2007

A waitress' story

As our waitress was clearing dishes off our table at the end of dinner at the Biloxi Schooner in the downtown area tonight, she started telling us her story. Her name is Shalom and she has lived in Biloxi for about six years -- right through Hurricane Katrina. Next month, she is moving to San Antonio. She simply sees no more future in this city.

She said her house was destroyed in the hurricane. Now rents are so high she cannot afford to live here. It's hard to find a gas station, her kids are not getting the kind of education she wants them to have. Many former residents have never come back, she said. Others have already left. She talked about her sadness at leaving, said she wants to come back to visit, but said she cannot stay living here now.

She asked whether we were visitors or volunteers. "Volunteers," we said. She thanked us for taking the time to come down to her city and wished us well. We wished her well, too. She was off to the kitchen and we were off to our trailer.

Hitting the wall

Each morning at 7:30, our work camp group gathers with others from Eagle River, Illinois and Connecticut for morning briefing with Leah Lyman, the volunteer coordinator; Craig, the construction supervisor, and Don Morgan, who oversees the whole volunteer effort. This morning, the room was extraordinarily quiet as people dragged themselves in. The pace of the work was taking its toll.

That's the way it went all day long. At the work sites, lots got done, but the bodies moved at a more sluggish pace. Numerous folks were at new work sites. The painting job at one house where Denise, Mary and Linda had been working was done. The huge project in Gulfport was scaled back, so John H, John Van O and Jim were free agents this morning. The three of them along with Mary and Linda went to work at a new site where the focus is on the renonvation of the interior of the house. Lots of painting of doors going on there. Denise helped out at the Loaves and Fishes noon meal program and also worked with the group from St. Charles, Ill. at their work site. Howard, David and I continued at the house we have been working on all week, with Howard taking a lead role in putting in new windows -- a major feat of creative engineering. (See pictures above.) The windows are in straight, but the house is crooked, so the windows look a bit odd from the outside. We won't get all the windows done on Friday, but we've made significant progress on that house.

As we settled in for the night (interrupted briefly when we turned on the heat, only to have all the smoke alarms start blaring), folks were reflecting back on the week. It was Howard to articulated something many of us had noticed -- no end to the number of times people would say thank you to us. Sure, the homeowners said thanks, but so did the folks in the hardware stores and at the restaurants and anywhere else we stopped in the Biloxi area. These folks are struggling to bring their communities into the future against great odds and they sure are glad some people from around the country are at their sides week after week.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Tales from the trailer

Sure, we're all busy working down here. But one of the best parts each day is when the nine of us gather in our trailer and tell stories -- stories of the day or stories of our lives.

John H, John VanO and Jim spent the first three days working at the site of a new house under construction in Gulport, about 10 miles away from Biloxi. This has been ... er ... a challenge. It's a huge, complex house, being built for three related families. This is not a typical project for Back Bay, but it is one the mission took on. It is a project, however, beyond the scope of volunteer labot. So it has not gone well, or, as John Hilliard said, "That place is nothing but trouble." The rafters are not going up well, the doors and windows don't fit, the list goes on and on. So today, at one point, our intrepid trio went to Home Depot to buy a tape measure. Once they got back to the work site, they realized that none of them had picked it up off the counter at the store. Back they went. And so it goes.

Last night, Mary had us all in stitches as she read selections from the Wisconsin Outdoor News that John Van O brought along. As she read through "Cuffs and Collars" about DNR arrests and citations of hunters and fishers, she combined naivete about hunting with deadpan delivery. Why would someone be arrested for hunting bear with seven dogs, she asked, in a tone that suggested maybe even one dog would be too many. (John Van O explained that hunting rules say you can only use six dogs.) By the time the evening was over, we figured if we had taped the conversation, we could have given "Guys on Ice" a run for its money.

Denise has managed to set up a running battle with John Rodgers, the leader of the St. Charles, Ill. group. John doesn't think much of Spook, our adopted black cat outside the trailer. So he needles Denise, who in turn needles him. We think ... think ... they will both survive the week.

Dave, Howard and I have been working on the inside of a house of a man who violated historic preservation rules by painting the exterior of his home blue and white because he is a Dallas Cowboys football fan. We've been fantasizing about repainting it green and gold just before we leave on Friday (and just before Dallas plays Green Bay at the end of this month).

This a group that loves a good story ... and the stories never stop. What a great bunch to be with.

Willing hearts

One of the highlights for people who come to Back Bay for work camps is attending worship services on Wednesday evenings at Main Street Missionary Baptist Church in Biloxi. Rev. Don Morgan, who is associate for volunteer services at the mission, is also connected with this church. So folks from Wisconsin and Illinois and Connecticut gathered with about a dozen Biloxi residents to sing a few hymns, hear a bit of scripture, form an improptu gospel choir under Don's direction and then hear Don preach. And can he ever preach!

His theme was that a willing heart and a made-up mind with availability and ability can get the job done. He applied that to those of who are here as volunteers this week. One reminder -- that many folks back at our home churches have a willing heart, but not the availability to come to Biloxi. He urged us to thank them for their support in prayers and in money to help get all of us here (so thanks, y'all). He also talked about how those of us with willing hearts were learning this week to do a lot more than we thought we were able to do. Lots of heads nodded as he said that.

After the service, John H and John VanO met a woman whose house they had worked on last year. This afternoon, Dave and I were talking with the man whose house we are working on this year and he told us how he had been baptized at Missionary Baptist Church when he was a child.

So this night tied a lot of threads together in an interesting way. We ended by forming a circle around the sanctuary, holding hands and saying the Lord's Prayer. People from many backgrounds, from many points on the compass, all came together in this wonderful moment.

The whole experience

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Biloxi after Katrina +2

Driving around the streets of Biloxi two-plus years after Hurricane Katrina swept across this metropolitan area, it's easy to get lulled into thinking everything is well on the way back to normal.

Sure, there are still wrecked buildings like the souvenir shop you see above on the coastal highway -- U.S. 90. Sure, you can still see boards on some houses and empty lots where other houses used to be. But just before we arrived in Biloxi, the massive new bridge between Biloxi and Ocean Springs opened, replacing the one ripped apart by the hurricane. The neon lights of casinos fill the night sky, and these resort centers are making record profits. The main building at Back Bay Mission is all fixed up and looks beautiful.

Rev. Shari Prestemon, the executive director of Back Bay, offered us a view of the scenes not so immediately evident when she talked to our work camp group Monday afternoon. Of the 450,000 people living in the metro area of Biloxi, Gulfport and Ocean Springs, 40 percent earn less than 80 percent of the median household income. And what is the median household income in these parts, you ask. It's $48,000. That means that 80 percent of the families live on less than $38,500. That does give them much to work with for fixing up a house or buying a place to live.

That's the big issue, Shari told us. Land values are skyrocketing as people hold out hope that casinos will buy their land. That has frozen the market for new housing. Insurance costs have escalated beyond what many people can afford, often exceeding the value of mortgage payments in housing escrow accounts. Many people are choosing to live without any homeowner's insurance. "The insurance is a real mess," Shari said.

So while the glitter of Biloxi is returning for tourists, here's what Shari and her crew see on the back streets.

* Emergency assistance given out since Katrina by Back Bay -- which was already helping the poorest people here before the storm -- has increased by 500 percent. In 2006, Back Bay provided assistance to 3,300 people.

* About 11,000 people are still living in FEMA trailers.

* Many other people are still living doubled up with family or friends.

* An influx of Latino workers brought in by contractors and casinos has added to the housing crunch, with employers sometimes stuffing a dozen people into a small house.

* Homelessness continues to be a big issue, with people living in their cars, on the streets, under bridges. There is only one small homeless shelter, and that serves victims of domestic violence.

As we work on building a house for three families struggling to go on after the hurricane, as we paint the exterior of one house and rebuild the interior of another, our group from Memorial is making just a small dent in a huge crisis of affordable housing here. In the process, we are learning up close the pervasiveness of poverty and the on-going impact of this region's largest natural disaster.


Scenes from Back Bay

Here are some shots from our work at Back Bay. The shot of Denise, Linda and Mary is at the house they are helping paint. Howard, Phil and Dave are at the house they are reframing with Pastor Pat Tucker from the UCC church in Eagle River, Wis. Her group is in the trailer next to ours. They have their own blog on their web site.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Hard at work

Today was our first real work day in Biloxi. John Hilliard, John Van Overbeke and Jim Mayhew went off with a crew to Gulfport to put up roof rafters on a new house for three families. It's a very high, steep and ususual roof. (Think about the roof at Memorial and you'll begin to get the idea.)

Denise Brandl and Mary Upshaw went with a group painting the exterior of a house in Biloxi. This also involves some work on window frames and the like. Phil Haslanger and Howard Cosgrove were working inside a house helping put up interior wall frames. Dave and Linda Michael got lunches ready for our group as well as the 13 or so people from St. Charles, Ill.

We are likely to stay on these jobs all week.

We also met with Shari Prestemon, the executive director at Back Bay. She told us a lot about the current situation in Biloxi and the work of Back Bay. More on that in a future post.

Just know for now that we all feeling like we put in a good day (that means people are feeling tired) and that we celebrated Jim Mayhew's 65th birthday and Howard Cosgrove's 60th birthday this evening. That ... and a game of euchre ... was a great way to end the day.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Greetings from Biloxi

Our work crew from Memorial UCC has settled in for the night. We arrived by car (John Hilliard, John Van Overbeke, Jim Myhew and Howard Cosgrove) and by plane (Phil Haslanger, Denise Brandl, Mary Upshaw, Dave and Linda Michael. By midafternoon, we had settled into our trailor at the Back Bay Mission site. Then we were off to New Orleans to explore a bit of the city.

Katrina remains a dominant presence here. On the flight from Memphis to Gulfport, I was talking with a woman who lives about 30 miles north of Biloxi. "Did Katrina affect you?" I asked. "Five and half feet of water," she replied. She and her three children -- then ages 5, 7 and 12 -- had taken refuge at her mother's place in another community before the storm. But even there, they watched water with white caps rush down the street. At their home, water destroyed everything. They lived in trailor for a year or so, now they are back home.

As Denise, Mary and I drove from the airport in Gulfport along the Gulf Coast to Biloxi, we saw a study in contrasts:
* The white sand on the beaches, carefully tended but still pretty unsafe as a result of all the debris washed up by Hurricane Katrina in August of 2005.
* Palm trees snapped off and dying on one side of the street, bushes manicured into the shape of dolphins in front of a resort on the other side.
* Brand new buildings next to empty lots next to the shells of buildings torn apart by the storm.
* Stretches of emptiness offset by casinos rising high into the sky, neon lights flashing.

And so it goes.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Ordination observations

Two colleagues wrote their takes on ordination day.
Gordon Govier, a long-time Madison journalist, handles press relations for Intervarsity Christian Fellowship. He wrote this on his blog, All God's People.
"Late Career Clergy: Their Number is Growing"
Bill Wineke is a columnist for the Wisconsin State Journal and a UCC minister. This appeared as his column on Nov. 3.
Truth has its way of prevailing

Occasion for hope

My friend Mimi Wuest from Reedsburg wrote this reflection after the ordination ceremony. Mimi and her husband Gene (and their daughters Emily and Abigail) have been part of our lives for a long time, so it was wonderful to read this.

As I have grown older, my closest spiritual relationship has been with St. Anthony, the patron saint of lost things. I have to say the dear fellow has never let me down. We have grown very close, St. Anthony and I, since I keep losing things, right and left. Keys, phone numbers, important letters and tools are the most frequent subjects of my prayers, but some of his successes include Halloween costumes, misplaced birthday gifts and over-due books.

Other than my on-going conversations with St. Anthony, my latest spiritual adventure led me to the ordination of a friend into the United Church of Christ ministry. I’ve always liked the openness and inclusivity of the UCC churches; my old church home in Chicago was a black sheep congregation of Disciples of Christ which was affiliated with the UCC.

It was heart-warming to see and hear the variety of religious leaders who attended this ordination. Ministers and laity were there from many UCC congregations as well as Lutherans and Catholics. I was there representing my own home-grown version of protestant paganism. Since my mother was frightened by the Methodists at an early age, I had little religious training as a child. I pieced together a belief system out of old radio broadcasts of “The Greatest Story Ever Told,” the Girl Scout laws and a stint with the Unitarian children’s choir.

Then I hooked up with the Disciples (the congregation, not the street gang) and spent 14 years singing fine music with them. Since I left Chicago my spirituality, like my life, has taken a path closer to nature. While I have visited some truly fine cathedrals in my life, I feel closer to God in the wilderness or seated beneath a great old tree than I do in the splendid monuments Man claims to have built in God’s honor.

Of late, I have been sorely disappointed in what passes for religious leadership in this country. Far too many of these “leaders” seem determined to turn us against one another. They indulge in finger-pointing and scape-goating and all manner of un-Christian behaviors. Under their tutelage, we move further and further away from peace on earth and good will towards men every year.

So a good dose of UCC empowerment was very welcome. Sunday’s ordination service at Lake Edge United Church of Christ in Madison was full of presentations, exhortations, examinations, acclamations, declarations and benedictions. Each one of these contained a healthy call to be of service to all of those in need, regardless of their race, religion or culture. A ministry of love and inclusion was not simply mouthed, it was practiced as a veritable throng of ministers came forward to lay their hands upon the newly ordained one and to give him their blessings.

Surely, we can see that the leadership we so desperately need in order to restore peace to the planet and attend to the ubiquitous miseries of hunger, disease, pollution and ignorance will not come from the self-serving political arena. Neither will it come from those who preach hatred and condemnation. Perhaps, just perhaps it will come from this new minister and others like him who will teach us to extend compassion to the entire human family and to the earth that sustains this family. Sunday’s ceremony offered everyone in attendance a much-needed occasion for hope.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Ordination Day

As I walked into Lake Edge United Church of Christ on the east side of Madison on Sunday afternoon, Oct. 28, I could sense the energy in the place. Kelly Jetzer and Donna Kuelz were setting up to sing. Choir members were arriving. Ellen and our friends Donna Chaney and Linda Micke were getting an artistic installation in place in front of the communion table.

All of this was to get ready for my ordination service at 3 in the afternoon.

Even though I have been working at various local congregations as an authorized lay pastor in the United Church of Christ for several years, this would be the moment when ordination would define my role as a minister serving people on behalf of the whole church. For me, this day was a long time coming, considering that in my teen years, I was studying to be a priest. Now some 40 years later, the moment of ordination was at hand.

What was the thing that you liked best? Ellen asked me after the ceremony was over.

Well, certainly when all the other ordained clergy came forward to lay hands on me, that was mighty powerful. Julia counted 34 clergy -- UCC, of course, but also Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Baptist, Pentecostal, Catholic -- a wonderful expression of the range of traditions within Christianity. There I was in the center, listening to Donna and Kelly sing "Send Forth Your Spirit, O God," as hands pressed down upon my shoulders and my back. My eyes were closed and I just drank it the moment. In the UCC tradition, it is the community that does the ordaining. Here, the community had given its assent, it had joined together in prayer, and now those who had been set apart before me as ordained ministers were embracing me in that calling we all share.

Another vivid impression was the range of folks who had gathered for his moment. There were people from all four churches where I have worked as a pastor, a contingent from the newsroom at The Capital Times where I have worked for the past 34 years, Jewish and Muslim colleagues from the community forum that I am part of this year at the Center for Abrahamic Studies at UW. Friends introduced themselves to the congregation as "pagans from Reedsburg" and as part of the Free Thought Society and as members of the Unitarian Society. One of the leaders of the area Evangelical Lutheran Church in America brought greetings. Family members came from as far away as Detroit and Indianpolis and Minneapolis, from Missouri and from Kansas. Friends, neighbors, black, white, gay, straight, male, female, young, old, the physically fit and those who labor with physical limitations. During the communion service, I said, "We gather at this table set with bread and cup, common elements shared in many forms by people all over the world, to remind us that this table is wide and vast beyond our imaging." The gathering here indeed was wide and vast.

The glow lingers. It is a real rush to have a couple hundred friends gather together on your behalf. I am deeply grateful for their presence, their prayers and they promise of on-going support for my ministry. And I am hopeful that as a minister, as a pastor and teacher, I can help people come and see and experience the love of God poured out in Christ Jesus our Lord.

There is a slide show from the ordination you can see by clicking here.

Monday, June 11, 2007

More action for poverty as an issue in '08

One week after Sojourners gave a well-noted push to getting poverty on the radar screen for the 2008 elections, another group with a lot more money weighed in to push the issue. The rock singer Bono and his ONE campaign, with financial backing from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and with bi-partisan support from two former Senate majority leaders - Democrat Tom Daschle and Republican Bill Frist -- announced a huge push in the coming year to get candidates to address issues of poverty. You can find more about that campaign here.

Two other useful resources from the last few days.

The New York Times Sunday magazine was a special issue all about income inequality in this country. If you don't have access to a paper copy, you can get to it online. (You may have to register, but it is free.)
One of the articles is this issue focuses on Ruby Payne, the author of the book recommended by Steve Fine at our discussion. It is at this link.

Also in the New York Times, religion columnist Peter Steinfels had one of the most sophisticated assessments of the Sojourners event. You can read the whole column, b
ut here is a wonderful set of questions that Steinfels posed:
On Monday, Ms. O’Brien kept describing the forum as one about “faith and politics,” and Ms. Zahn was backed by a logo with the same phrase.

But there was no “and” there. These conversations were about faith. They were about politics. They just weren’t conversations about faith and politics.

Think of questions that could have explored that “and.”

What does the Bible or any other religious source tell you about fighting poverty — and what doesn’t it tell you? Likewise for writing tax legislation or extending health care.

Does your faith dictate any absolute principles, ones you would never compromise, for using military force? For interrogating prisoners? For making peace in the Middle East? For legal provision of abortion? For recognizing gay marriage?

What is your reaction to the claim that religion is “a conversation stopper” that should be kept out of political debates because it appeals to emotionally powerful convictions beyond rational examination?

Do you agree with the large proportion of voters — perhaps half or more — who say they wouldn’t vote for an atheist for president, even one generally qualified for the office?

do you say to those who fear that even conversations like this one constitute a religious test for the presidency?

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Some books about poverty

On Monday night, Sojourners co-sponsored a discussion with three presidential candidates -- Hillary Clinton, John Edwards and Barack Obama -- about faith, politics and poverty. About 30 people gathered at Fitchburg Memorial UCC to watch it together and this discuss the ideas that came out of it. Here is a reading list that I put together coming out of that discussion:

Steve Fine recommended this book during our discussion:
A Framework for Understanding Poverty
By Ruby K.Payne
199 pp., $22, 2005
aha Process Inc.

A good new book for linking faith to hunger:
Take This Bread: A Radical Conversation
By Sara Miles
283 pp. $24.95, 2007
Ballantine Books

For a evangelical warning about getting too caught up in politics:
The Myth of a Christian Nation:
How the Quest for Political Power is Destroying the Church
By Gregory A. Boyd
219 pp., $14.95, 2007

For a look at folks engaged in living with global poverty:
The New Friars: The Emerging Movement Serving the World's Poor
By Scott Bessenecker (he's from Madison)
199 pp., $15, 2006
IVP Books

And for folks living with poverty in this country:
The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical
By Shane Clairborne
368 pp., $12.99, 2006

A woman writing about her own experience of being poor:
My Name is Child of God, Not "Those People"
By Julia K. Dinsmore
176 pp., $13.99, 2007
Augsburg Books

And don't forget the basic book for Sojourners -
God's Politics
By Jim Wallis
432 pp., $14.95, 2006

And in the beginning ...

... I created a blog. I'll use this to post reflections on life in our world, post sources of material that others might find interesting, provide links to places you might find useful. I hope you will write back, so this can become a place for conversation rather than a one-way rumination.

Let the fun begin.