Heeding the call made by members of his Conyers First United Methodist Church youth group, the Rev. Andrew Covington and a band of volunteers departed for New Orleans last month on their "Just Geaux" summer mission trip. For one life-changing week, 30 teens and adults worked relentlessly on rebuilding projects in St. Bernard Parish, one of Katrina's hardest-hit areas.
Launching each 12-plus hour work day from Aurora United Methodist Church, they split into four groups with tasks that ran the gamut from putting finishing touches on nearly completed homes to demolishing a seemingly fine rebuilt home infested with mold and sulfur. "I am blown away by our youth and their spiritual maturity and heart to serve others no matter how hot, tired or sore they are," said Covington.
Eighteen-year-old Jennifer Jackson found herself in a group assigned to tear down Mae Rose Prestenbach's home. Jackson, already a veteran of mission trips to Kenya, is currently plugging away in a Spanish Language Institute at North Georgia College where she will study to become a physician's assistant - in part to be a bigger mission work asset. She said the work in her group felt a little backwards. "We spent the day taking down a house, rather than building," she said.
Less than two years ago, Prestenbach moved back into her home after the grueling process of rebuilding it from scratch, only to learn the controversial Chinese drywall used was contaminated with sulfur, which resulted in rotting electrical wiring.
Jackson says one of the more emotionally wrenching jobs of the week was removing floors, tiles and drywall as the homeowner faced being displaced yet again. The verse from Joshua 1:9 propelled the group during their toil - "Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified. Do not be discouraged. For the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."
Even during down times, the youth looked for ways to serve the hopeless in New Orleans. One evening, an enormous amount of spaghetti remained from their communal dinner. At 10 p.m., team member Dylan West began making calls to find a place where they could share their leftovers. That's how the group came across the Ozanam Inn, a hospice for homeless men staffed by brothers of The Good Shepherd. "Not only did we get to provide a meal, but for many in the hospice we were providing hope," said West, "What originally was a way to dispose of extra food became a major ‘God moment' for us."
Approaching Katrina's sixth anniversary, Covington says it was still a tremendous culture shock to see the poor conditions of parts of New Orleans. Both he and Jackson worked in Nakuru, Kenya, last summer, and Jackson didn't expect to see "so much pain and destruction and people still in ruins" stateside. All were amazed at the project's power and scope. With donations from CFUMC members totaling $2,500, they were able to take all youth group members who wanted to participate. In summing up her experience, Jackson said, "Watching God work his magic in the dramatic change of the group - growing in our faith and as people - while we were serving these resilient people was so rewarding."