Raising up servants

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Tabor College sends students, alumni to aid hurricane recovery

by Jenny Gaskell, Connie Faber and Grant Overstake

What is it like for a family to lose everything? When an entire city experiences such devastation? Tabor College’s Disaster Relief and Service Trip, Jan. 13-31, aimed at helping students wrestle with these questions and cultivating in participants a desire to serve others. 

In more ways than one, Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college located in Hillsboro, Kan., is a long way from the hurricane-battered Gulf Coast. The 2009 January Interterm service trip exposed students from Tabor, where half the student body hails from landlocked Kansas, to the devastating impact of natural disasters and gave them experiences in responding with Christian compassion as they worked alongside survivors of Hurricane Katrina and more recent Gulf Coast hurricanes.

The Tabor College Carson Center, established in 2006 to promote mission, service and global education, sponsored the trip. The Carson Center, directed by Matt Cox, also sponsored a 2009 interterm trip to India where students visited rural and urban Mennonite Brethren congregations and the Centenary Bible College and annually sponsors spring break service trips. Spring break service trips this month are offered to Kansas City and the Gulf Coast where teams will work with Mennonite Disaster Service.

The Carson Center is named in honor of Carson MB Church of Delft, Minn., a mission-minded Mennonite Brethren congregation that when it closed gave a third of the proceeds generated from the closing to Tabor College. Next month The Carson Center is hosting a week of special events, including The Carson Center Banquet that will feature keynote addresses by educators Lowell Ewert, Merril Ewert and Norm Ewert. 

Going beyond comfort zones

Karol Hunt, professor of physical education and chair of the Division of Education, Social Science and Applied Arts, was recruited to lead the relief and service trip. Hunt has made two previous trips to the Gulf Coast to assist with Hurricane Katrina cleanup. 

Hunt’s goals for the trip were concrete and intangible.

“We want to help people with rebuilding their homes, but we also want to be an encouragement to them, to let them know they are not forgotten and to share God's love with them,” said Hunt prior to the trip. “I want the students to get beyond their comfort zones and to learn about giving to others and how to serve those who have been through a devastating event. We want to listen to their stories and to hear what they have been through and how they have survived.”

The TC group served in two communities impacted by recent hurricane seasons. The Gulf Coast drew national attention in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina made landfall Aug. 23 as a massive Category 3 storm. High winds and widespread flooding claimed at least 1,836 lives, making it the deadliest U.S. hurricane since 1928.

The most severe damage occurred in New Orleans, La., where the levee system failed catastrophically and as much as 80 percent of the city was under water. A month later Hurricane Rita struck the already devastated region.

In 2008, two hurricanes again hit the Gulf Coast. Hurricane Gustav came ashore the U.S. Sept. 1, and a week later it was Hurricane Ike, the third most destructive hurricane to make landfall in the U.S., damaging some communities again.

Rural & urban work sites

The TC group served with two Christian relief agencies. The group spent the first week in New Iberia, La., where they worked with Mennonite Disaster Service, the disaster relief agency of Mennonite churches in the U.S. and Canada. MDS has seen more than 7,000 volunteers at its Gulf Coast hurricane-related rebuilding projects since 2005.

Six Tabor College alumni and spouses joined Hunt and the five TC students who used the Interterm trip to meet the college’s intercultural awareness experience requirement. New Iberia project directors and TC alumni Gil and Rhoda Friesen were gracious hosts, says Hunt, and their connection to the college and Mennonites made for an immediate bond.

The second week the students and Hunt traveled on to New Orleans’ Upper 9th Ward where they worked with Samaritan’s Purse, an international relief agency that in the two and one-half years following Katrina saw 13,350 volunteers assist in their Gulf Coast rebuilding projects.

More than three years after the storm, there are still families in New Orleans who are homeless or living in substandard houses. For the next two years, Samaritan’s Purse will aid some of the neediest people who still haven’t recovered from the storm. Samaritan’s Purse is refurbishing existing homes and building new homes in what the agency is calling Neighborhood Rebuild Project.

Living and working

Both MDS and Samaritan’s Purse provide meals and lodging for volunteers and facilitate morning devotions and evening sharing times. The TC group lived and worked alongside other volunteers. In New Iberia their co-workers were four retired men from the Catholic Construction Corps, Joliet, Ill. Diocese. While the TC students were in New Orleans, Samaritan’s Purse was also hosting a church group from New Jersey, retired railroad workers from Ohio and three retirees who call themselves Team US and travel to various locations doing construction work. 

Both MDS and Samaritan’s Purse accept volunteers with limited construction skills and have qualified building professionals who work with volunteers.

“Some of the (TC) students came with apprehension, not knowing anything about construction and kind of wishing that maybe they should have signed up for the class touring Europe instead of the disaster recovery class in Louisiana,” writes Rhoda Friesen in the couple’s MDS weekly update as she reflects on the week with the TC group.

“Thanks to the patient teaching of our crew leaders and the Lord working in their lives, they were seasoned masons and carpenters, proud of their work and the relationships they had built with the homeowners by the end of the week…. It was a great week; the volunteers felt they had received more blessings than they had given.”

The TC volunteers agree with the Friesens’ assessment.

“None of us were very experienced in construction projects so learning how to do something or taking initiative was hard,” says TC senior Ginger Richardson.

“Several of us were called upon to do things we knew nothing about,” says Larry Nikkel, TC President Emeritus. “I think we learned quickly enough to be of help.”

Shirley Jost, who graduated from Tabor College in 1966, told the Friesens, “I may be bruised and tired on the outside, but I’m bubbling on the inside.”

New construction, refurbishing

The New Iberia work site had been open just one week when the TC volunteers arrived. MDS was in the New Iberia area for one year following Hurricane Rita. The relief agency returned in January to help rebuild from damage done by Hurricane Ike’s storm surge.

The TC group worked in Franklin, just outside of New Iberia, where they focused on new construction, says Hunt. The TC volunteers were distributed among MDS’s three house construction projects.

In New Orleans the TC crew also worked at three homes being refurbished by Samaritan’s Purse, doing odd jobs, cutting and installing baseboard and hanging insulation and marking studs so that the following week a new group of volunteers could hang sheetrock.

The students interviewed the homeowners they met who were in various stages of rebuilding their lives and local relief workers who have witnessed the recovery process. The students kept journals in which they reflected on their experiences.

Developing connections, understanding

The students worshipped at Franklin Avenue Baptist Church, a congregation in the 9th Ward that is TC student Tasia Johnson’s home church. After Hurricane Katrina, the church building was flooded by nine feet of dirty water. Rebuilding took 31 months and the congregation that had numbered more than 7,000 drew 4,000 members and attendees at its reopening service in April 2008. The TC students and Hunt attended the 7:30 a.m. service, and Hunt reports that the 1,700-seat auditorium was packed.

While the TC work crew had minimal contact with local residents, the group was impacted by the relationships they developed.

“The homeowner worked side-by-side with us,” says Richardson of Miss Bundy. “It was so great listening to her and getting to know a little about her.”

The students learned that Miss Bundy had decided to wait out Hurricane Katrina in her home and that when the levees broke Miss Bundy was one of the many individuals who climbed on the roof and waited to be rescued.

TC volunteers also better understand the challenges of administering disaster aid and the long road to recovery.

“Something most people probably don’t realize is how much is left to do,” says Richardson. “There is a lot of need to share Christ in that area and serve in a practical way, bearing witness to God’s greatness and love.”

Hunt agrees. “Lots of rebuilding needs to be done,” she says. “People still need to work at putting their lives back together. They’ll be rebuilding for years.”

Participating students were Jessica Burden, Little Elm, Texas; Julie Huxman, Hesston, Kan.; Erika Lacy, St. Francis, Kan.; Ginger Richardson, Simla, Colo.; and Erin Vance, Concordia, Kan. Participants in the MDS portion of the trip included Darrel and Geneva Just, Hillsboro, Kan.; Larry Nikkel, Tabor College President Emeritus living in Hillsboro; Shirley Jost, Topeka, Kan; and Don and Betty Fruechting, Marion, Kan.

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