2015-04-24 / Community

South Church helps out in Deep South

By Duke Harrington Staff Writer

Members of Kennebunkport’s South Congregational Church work on a home in Biloxi, Miss., this past March as part of the their annual mission to aid Gulf Coast residents still feeling the ravages of Hurricane Katrina a decade after it made landfall. (Courtesy photo) Members of Kennebunkport’s South Congregational Church work on a home in Biloxi, Miss., this past March as part of the their annual mission to aid Gulf Coast residents still feeling the ravages of Hurricane Katrina a decade after it made landfall. (Courtesy photo) KENNEBUNKPORT — It’s been nearly a decade since Hurricane Katrina tore through the Gulf Coast, leaving broken homes and shattered dreams in its wake, and, hard as it may be to fathom, some victims are still homeless.

But thankfully, those folks have some angels looking out from them, right here on Earth.

Every year since the big storm, members of the South Congregational Church in Kennebunkport have ventured south to lend a helping hand. For the past three years, that calling has taken them to the Back Bay Mission in Biloxi, Miss., rebuilt from the ground up since Katrina, which organizes nearly 50 different home repair projects at a time, booking volunteer groups like the Maine contingent as far as a year in advance.

The most recent trip, completed between March 21-28, included 15 local residents, among them three teenagers.

“Every year it’s a little different, but this year our group ranged from 14 to near 80,” the Rev. Charles Whiston said on Friday.

In addition to a wide range of ages, the group also included every conceivable skill set, with appropriate work found for everyone, from framing, to painting, to playing gopher to the work crews.

But the goal is the same for everyone — to help get victims of one of the greatest natural disasters on record in the U.S. back into their homes and feeling a little bit of human dignity.

“Some people are still sleeping on couches in relatives’ homes or neighbors’ homes, because somebody came along and said they’d fix things and then stole all their insurance money,” said Kennebunk resident Heather McLaughlin, who has taken part in most of the trips.

In the weeks and months after the hurricane, many people were taken advantage of by unscrupulous contractors or, in some cases, by people who were not contractors at all. A person would swoop in and promise an ability to take care of needed sheetrocking, electrical, or plumbing work, and request cash up front due to demand. Once paid, the “contractor” would never show up again.

“These people were desperate,” Mc- Laughlin said. “They’d give all their money and then the next day the person would just disappear.”

The local church group has spent every year helping people to recover from graft that left already poor people in even more desperate straits. In other cases, Mc- Laughlin says, repair work was done so poorly that people need help to keep their homes from falling down around them.

But, as joyful as the feeling can be of helping those in need, even more warmth is felt from the immersion in a different culture.

“Oh, my gosh, it was magical,” said Joe Hepp of Arundel. “I’m not kidding, it really was.”

Although not a member of South Congregational Church, Hepp knew of the annual mission through a friend, who is. With some construction knowledge, Hepp asked to go along on this year’s trip.

“I didn’t go into it with any preconceived notions of what to expect. I just wanted to help these people,” said Hepp. “But really, I found you get so much back. So much more than what you give.”

In addition to the experience of living and working in close quarters to other volunteers, and accepting the deepest thanks of grateful homeowners, Hepp says part of the magic for him, having been raised Catholic, came from the opportunity to attend a service at a predominantly black Baptist church.

“That was a really moving experience,” he said. “They were so welcoming and it was just so nice. And then the southern barbeque was really nice, too.”

“I call it a border crossing experience,” said Whiston. “The deep south is just very different from New England — culturally, foods, style of worship, everything. It’s just so rich, but so different.”

Also taking part in the experience this year is Wells resident Linda Hill.

Somewhat nervous on her first mission three years ago, Hill wondered what she could contribute, but by the second or third day, she was on scaffolding painting a second level, Whiston recalled.

However, Hill points out that second level was really the first floor of the home the group was working on that year.

“It’s so strange for someone around here, to see a house on stilts,” she said with a laugh. “Getting outside of my box is just as important to me as going down and helping, although I have to say, despite the stories we hear, and the things some people from around here say, in all three times I’ve been down there, I haven’t felt scared or intimidated or worried about my personal safety.”

Particularly satisfying on this trip, Hill says, given that the group generally does tasks as assigned for a week, rather than seeing a project through from start to finish, was actually putting the final touches on a home — a long way from the demolition work while decked out in hazmat suits done on an early mission — and meeting up with homeowners the group has helped in the past.

“One of the things this has done for us is it’s got us interested in doing more around here, in terms of work with soup kitchens and other missions,” said Whiston.

“For me, it’s been most amazing to see some of the young people who have gone on these trips,” said McLaughlin. “To realize how much of this they took in, I think that’s something that will stay with them for the rest of their lives.”

“I believe these missions foster a sense of community, in spiritual work, rather than religious,” said Whiston. “It’s all about discovering who God is rather than saying, OK, we’re bringing god to you. It’s about realizing there’s something in our midst here that’s greater than the sum of its parts. For is, that’s the spirit of God at work.

“This year, a woman named Debbie, who we helped last year to get back into her home after eight years, came to see us, with tears in her eyes she was so happy to see us back,” Whiston recalled. “To me, when I see something like that, I don’t need to read the Bible to see love at work.”

South Congregational Church already has its next trip to help out at Biloxi’s Back Bay Mission planned for April 2016.

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