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The Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference is a partner with Mennonite Disaster Service (MDS). The following reflection was written by Stanley Green, executive conference minister for the Pacific Southwest Mennonite Conference. He recently toured several MDS disaster response sites accompanied by other conference pastors and representatives from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and MDS. Below are his reflections and observations from that experience.

By invitation from Kevin King, MDS Executive Director, I was asked to join a team of administrators from MDS and FEMA along with a few Mennonite Church leaders, a consultant, a researcher, and  someone representing a funding entity. Our task was to appraise the work being done in Louisiana for repair and disaster mitigation.

We traveled for three days from Lafayette to Jennings, Cut Off, Dulac, Larose deep in the bayous on the edge of the Gulf Coast. In each place we heard the names roll off the tongues of administrators – Katrina, Harvey, Ida, Laura, Zeta – each representing widespread devastation still disfiguring many of these communities. The scope of these never-before-seen catastrophes severely challenged the resources and capacity of these agencies to respond to the devastation these natural disasters had wrought. Louisiana’s total costs since 1980 are now at $290 billion. We were stunned and shaken by these statistics.

We also met with people for whom the impact of the storms represented a very personal desolation, bringing many of them to the edge of giving up all hope. We winced as we heard their stories of unexpected calamity and misfortune. More than once we heard a resident describe rebuilding from one storm, just to have their houses destroyed by the next. Summoning up all the optimism and courage they could muster, they rebuilt, thinking surely there will not be another. Then eclipsed by despair, their eyes now moistened with tears, they described the unbelievable agony of surveying their home destroyed by yet another storm, hurricane, or tornado. Following this third disaster they reported being totally bereft of hope and desperately searching for other options when it seemed they had lost everything and had nowhere to go.

Through many people of goodwill joining in to build a network between churches, community not-for-profit entities, disaster relief agencies like MDS and governmental agencies like FEMA, what seemed bleak, even impossible, is being transformed as these entities collaborate to bring healing and hope to a desperate situation. These “angels,” as they were referred to by one of the homeowners who was having her home rebuilt,  became the miracle that the victims of the storms knew they needed if they were ever to have a place called home again.

Everywhere we went we heard deeply moving and emotional stories of families and individuals who became homeless in the wake of devastating weather events. In each place we listened to their anguish, heard the despair that came crashing into their lives with unforgiving storms and felt the pain that left hearts aching in their plight. Thankfully, that was not all we heard. We listened as they also described the relief, joy and exhilaration they experienced as they were connected by divine providence (their words) with MDS or FEMA leading to the restoration of their hope. People  recoveryed their will to move forward as these entities helped them to rebuild their homes and their lives.

We, along with homeowners, watched as MDS volunteers (Amish young people, a crew of couples who came in their RVs to live nearby as they worked on the projects and other individuals and project directors) invested their time, whether for one week to six months, to restore lives and heal communities. We observed the joy and diligence of the volunteers as they gave of themselves. It was inspiring to see their altruism and care. Nothing, however, could match the palpable elation and gladness of the new homeowners. It was not possible to remain unaffected by the beaming delight and thrill in their eyes at their transformed/transforming circumstance. I can think of only a handful of days when I was so buoyed by hope and cheered by a deep happiness. I came to a new appreciation of the work of MDS and the difference they are making in devastated lives. I also came away with a new admiration for the work of a government agency like FEMA. In those few days, days when I often felt my breath taken away, I learned that collaboration by people of goodwill, undergirded by a spirit of compassion, creates room for hope to dispel fear and despair.

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