At 6:30 a.m. yesterday morning I loaded La Belle Femme’s luggage, air mattress, and bedding into the back of the 2009 RAV-4 SUV and drove the 2.5 miles across town to drop her off at the regional Baptist Disaster Relief headquarters to join the thirteen-member team that was about to embark on an eight-hour drive, eight-day out-of-town trip to Walker, Louisiana, site of the recent 1,000 year flood that has devastated southern Louisiana and left tens of thousands homeless and in extremely dire circumstances.
When nature agitates in cataclysmic furious flooding, twisting tornados, convulsive earthquakes, horrific hurricanes, monstrous monsoons, shifting landslides, and relentlessly feverish fuming fires, lives and dreams are shattered, and the realization that there are forces over which humanity has no jurisdiction gives us a sobering pause to assess what is most important in our lives.
Religious fanatics such as John Hagee, Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee and their Sadducee brethren rant babble thusly: “This is God’s punishment for – (choose a sin)!” The good Samaritans circle the wagon and go into action in the spirit of the Palestinian Jew’s admonishment to love one’s neighbors as one would love himself. While scientists warn us of changing weather patterns that are detrimental to our environment and existence, politicians and corporate interests challenge proven scientific evidence.
As I was unloading La Belle Femme’s belongings at the drop-off/loading area by the railroad tracks and adjacent to the two minibuses, van, and truck to which trailers were hitched, Amtrak’s diesel-powered locomotives’ pounding wheels and piercing whistle’s shrieks signaled the beginning of another day.
And this was just another day in the lives of the thirteen-member Baptist Disaster Relief volunteers.
When the “Call [was] made out” to these volunteers only two days ago, this was another day in the service of their neighbors some 500 miles to the south.
Loaded up and ready to traverse the mostly winding rural backroads, the group lined up for a photograph and a prayer. “When the call is made out … we thank You for … Be with us … safe travel … putting our faith in action … to serve You” were some of the phrases that lingered, phrases that were stripped of the clichés one hears in most prayers, and phrases that came from that deep well of convictions deeply rooted in the Beatitudes and Christ’s parables.
After La Belle Femme retired, she joined the local Retired Teachers’ Association and the Baptist Disaster Relief team, a team directed by Harold Johnson, and a team composed of retired professionals who’ve dedicated their lives to teaching, nursing, the ministry, and myriad professions. A retired colonel in his late seventies or early eighties, Harold coordinates and runs the regional organization with Swiss-watch precision; he has extensive support from Arkadelphia’s First Baptist Church membership, including affiliated churches from across the state.
A retired popular biology professor in his mid-to-late eighties, Kenneth Sandifer and his wife, Lucille, a retired surgical nurse, are part of this team. For years now Lucille has not allowed debilitating severe back pain, pain that makes her every step a tender effort, get in her way of serving others. Her trademark smile and gentle and genteel demeanor light up the space around her. Harold Johnson reminds me of Andrew, the prototypical disciple recognized for his leadership and organizational skills. And Bob Duncan, a retired hospital counselor/chaplain who’s devoted his life to helping people put broken fragments of their lives together, continues to do so, even in retirement.
On Saturday last I saw all of the aforementioned and their spouses at a bereavement meal soon after the funeral service of a deceased church member. Serving and waiting on grieving family members and their relatives is yet but one other example of their ministering to others.
Some fifteen years back Tom Martin, First Baptist Church’s preacher, challenged and inspired the congregation to commit some of its resources and members’ efforts to a summer week-long project better known as Arms Around Arkadelphia. Years later and under the remarkable leadership of David McCalister, a retired chemist, the program has expanded and has drawn volunteers from other local churches. In fact, some volunteers have travelled from across the state to join in these efforts. A talented musician, David coordinates all the teams much like an accomplished symphony orchestra conductor.
Each year local citizens with limited means submit a list of needs for home repairs/improvements to the church’s AAA committee. The committee selects a certain number of applicants/projects based on financial and home improvement needs. Volunteer teams are assigned by expertise, age, and experience, and these include multiple teams of plumbing, electrical, painting, carpentry, sheet rock, and yard/lawn experts. And the work typically includes replacing rotten floors and sub floors; laying floor tiles/vinyl flooring; repairing, mudding, and painting damaged sheet rock; replacing unstable hand rails; building accessible wheelchair ramps; repairing dilapidated screened-in porches; replacing doors to accommodate new physical/health realities; repairing and replacing kitchen and bathroom plumbing; rewiring exposed and sub-standard electrical wiring; installing window air conditioning units; removing debris, clearing/trimming/mowing yards, including taming shrubbery gone wild. While each team is performing its designated task at its assigned location, another group of volunteers, working under Roberta Long’s feeding the masses expertise, delivers/prepares/serves lunch and dinner for some 135 volunteers that range in age from 10 to 92.
It is edifying to see Molly Wallace and other parents working alongside their children, a teaching by example as no other. Yet another wedded team includes Hank (a retired aviation instructor at a local university) and his wife, Lela (a retired school teacher) Wilson; while Lela holds a baseboard or molding, Hank, employing the tailgate of his ancient truck as a workbench, cuts the measured lengths. Working in tandem, they prime, paint, and eventually proceed to nail the molding to give a “finishing” touch to a room or hallway. And take Ron Harrison as an example. A forester by profession, Ron is a down to earth man who knows his trees, woods, insects, snakes, and wildlife like no other person I’ve met. Known for shying away from recognition and after seeing his name in print, Ron might refuse to go fishing with me. And even though Ron is younger than I am, after my quintuple bypass rerouting, he’s taken to treating me as his much younger brother, an amusement we both play very well. Ron takes off from work for a whole week to head one of the carpentry teams to, in the manner of the Nazarene Carpenter, “fix” what is broken down. While Joseph lugged his tools on a donkey, Ron hitches his 15 foot trailer to his Ford F-150 truck and “hauls” his assortment of tape measures, hammers, nails, screws, levels and state of the art precision power tools to different sites. In short, an artisan’s woodwork workshop on wheels could be spotted at different sites. An unfinished project is completed in subsequent evenings or weekends. And then there is Bill McCrary, the fellow who gushes with enthusiasm as he measures, cuts, nails, and walks around in 105 degree heat index temps to encourage, pat on the back, and make sure things are proceeding according to plan.
In short, much like a beehive whose worker bees buzz tirelessly about their business, all the volunteers, motivated by light, bring sweetness to their neighbors’ lives.
In late spring the Baptist Disaster Relief team spent two days in Monticello, AR, feeding an army of dentists and hygienists (well over 100) and their patients. I am told that many low-income families and unemployed individuals spent the night sleeping on the sidewalk to queue up (in the long lines) for their turn. Dental work including cleaning, replacing/implanting new fillings, X-rays, pulling teeth and making/replacing dentures were just a few of the services rendered to good folks of all ages whose income levels deny them access to basic dental care that would give them longer and better dental and overall health. While I don’t recall the exact number of dentists and dental hygienists recounted to me, the number of patients was in the hundreds, and the dental experts, from across the state, tended to every need in a compassionate manner. One large room at Monticello’s First Baptist Church was set up as a lab in which dentures and other time consuming dental implants and fillings were manufactured for same-day service.
The one thing I do recall was La Belle Femme’s telling me (in a somewhat hushed voice while holding back her emotions) about the coordinator of this free dental clinic’s addressing the patients as follows: We are pleased to be here to provide this service, each one of you is very important to the members of the team. At an earlier time in my life I was in the same dire condition as you are. That you are unemployed and that you lack the means to get dental care elsewhere does not diminish your importance or value to us. We do this because we care, and we do it became it is a mission upon which we are called.
Harold, Sandy, Lucille, Bob, La Belle Femme, and numerous other volunteers were present to work miracles with convection ovens that fed the masses. Having lost their son (a promising young dentist) to an accident, Sandy and Lucille were there to carry on in his work.
There is nothing more edifying than seeing health professionals, teachers, social workers and others accord those in need, and especially those living on the fringe, the dignity they deserve. They, too, are human, and they, too, belong to and are an integral part of the human family.
That the richest country the world has known cannot provide decent and reasonably priced health care to all its citizens is a national disgrace made the more macabre by worthless politicians from both sides of the aisle, as well as greedy drug manufacturing companies and their greedy, worthless CEOs.
Which brings me to this: politicians are notorious for showing up at disaster sites for photo-ops that’ll eventually make their way into political ads. And during this, the season of political campaigning of the worst kind, it behooves American citizens to hold their elected officials to account for the hypocrisy and narcissism and demand reasonably priced health care for all.
The Baptist Disaster Relief caravan that left early yesterday morning has been called on a mission. Sleeping and working in a Spartan setting for a period of six physically demanding days, the 13 member team, along with volunteers from across the nation, will be preparing three meals a day for over 7,000 neighbors in real need. And this does not include the Good Samaritan mudding and repair crews numbering in the thousands, who will descend on a sister state to lend her a hand at juncture of her greatest need.
And on the seventh day they will head home – and rest – until the next “calling is made out.”