Mormon Helping Hands and the Gospel of Hope

During the Fall of 2005, I got to spend a lot of time in the New Orleans area. In the months following Hurricane Katrina, the church did a lot of work there through the bishop’s storehouse and the Mormon Helping Hands. I learned some things about how the church operates during a catastrophic disaster, and this post is an attempt to describe some of those experiences.

The storm came out of the Gulf of Mexico and struck the the coast of Louisiana and Missippi on August 29th, causing levee failure and subsequent flooding in the city of New Orleans and the surrounding parishes, damage from the storm surge all the way to Mobile, Alabama, and severe wind damage well inland. I arrived in the area on September 9th. New Orleans was still under water, and the services in the surrounding suburbs were barely functional – electrical service was hit and miss, no grocery stores were open because the employees had evacuated, gas stations couldn’t pump gas, traffic lights were out, and so on. Two days after I arrived, McDonald’s opened the drive-through lane. You could get anything you wanted, as long as it was chicken nuggets and warm sprite. They didn’t have ice, and they didn’t have fries or hamburgers.

I found that the church had already organized work crews from wards and stakes located hundreds of miles away. Stakes in places as far away as Miami, Atlanta, and Dallas were requested to send able-bodied adults to help with the cleanup work. On Friday afternoons after work, several hundred people would assemble at their local stake centers, bringing with them their own food, sleeping bags, and tools. They would drive all night and arrive in the disaster area early Saturday morning, where they would report in to the ward house. The cultural hall of the building served as the functional equivalent of NASA’s Houston Control. There was always a long table set up with work orders organized by time period. The rolling chalkboard had a detailed local map hanging on it, with colored pins showing job locations. Around the perimeter of the gym, cases of bottled water and granola bars were stacked against the walls, as well as first aid kits and boxes of gloves.

The groups were broken down into manageable crews, 10-15 people each, with a designated leader and assistant. The leaders went into a short meeting where work assignments were distributed and instructions were given. By 7:30 a.m., the crew was on the road to a job. The work was difficult and dirty. We helped people move all their soggy belongings – beds, sofas, pianos, cabinets – out to the street for pickup. We helped remove wet, moldy drywall, sometimes from the entire house, so that the 2X4s, plumbing pipes, and electrical wire were the only things left. We removed trees from rooftops and made temporary repairs in order to keep the weather out of the house. We cut down trees that were leaning and hazardous, and cut the trees in pieces and took the pieces to the pile at the curb. The crews worked like this all day Saturday until it was too dark to see. They then went back to the church and set up tents on the lawn. Early Sunday morning, each group held its own short (15 minute) sacrament meeting, and then started on the work assignments for the day. I learned that a camp cooler on the grass can serve as a sacrament table, and that a young man wearing his high school wrestling t-shirt is appropriately dressed to officiate in that ordinance. I also learned that the sound of 10 chainsaws biting into logs at 8 o’clock on Sunday morning can sound as beautiful as any choir. In mid-afternooon, the crews would finish up and begin the long drive home, so they could get to their jobs on Monday morning.

That experience taught me how the gospel can bring hope into the world. Some of the people we served had become discouraged and given up. Most of us would, too, if we had lost our homes and had been unable to change clothes or shower for two weeks. They always thanked us and hugged us, often repeatedly. They were incredulous that strangers would seek them out and work that hard for them. One of the most beautiful faces I have seen in my life was dirty and tear-stained, and belonged to an older woman who lived alone, whose roof was damaged by a falling tree. She was living with buckets all over the house to catch the rain. Our people removed the tree, patched the roof, helped her file an insurance claim, and got her some groceries from the storehouse. She couldn’t stop crying.

Members often express the desire for more local autonomy, and the strong, centralized heirarchy is often seen as a burden. But I have realized that the church was able to respond to Katrina in the way it did precisely because of its organizational structure. I am not aware of any other organization that was able to do what the church did. It was able to insert 4,000 people per week directly into the blast zone of the storm, deploy them intelligently, offer only minimal logistical support, and do all this at very little cost to itself, and repeat this process week after week for several months. Wallace Stegner said that Mormons are better at this sort of project than anyone else. I don’t know if that is true, but I know we are pretty good at it. We have a remarkable capacity for self-organization. I have never been around people who understand the principle of “captains of hundreds, captains of fifties, and captains of tens” as well as my fellow latter-day saints.

On the night of October 1, 2005, Gordon B. Hinckley said this in general priesthood meeting:

“Now, as all of us are aware, the Gulf States area of the United States has recently suffered terribly from raging winds and waters. Many have lost all they had. The damage has been astronomical. Literally millions have suffered. Fear and worry have gripped the hearts of many. Lives have been lost.

With all of this, there has been a great outpouring of help. Hearts have been softened. Homes have been opened. Critics love to talk about the failures of Christianity. Any such should take a look at what the churches have done in these circumstances. Those of many denominations have accomplished wonders. And far from the least among these has been our own Church. Great numbers of our men have traveled considerable distances, bringing with them tools and tents and radiant hope.”

I listened to those words while sitting in a stake center in Louisiana, surrounded by a few hundred strangers still wearing their work clothes. Most of them were sound asleep, snoring like water buffaloes, because they had worked so hard all day, and this was the first chance they had to sit down. I love the church because it can take very ordinary people and help them to work miracles.

—————————————————————————————–

I’d like to thank the PTB at BCC for allowing me the opportunity to post here. I’ve enjoyed the interaction and insights from those who have commented. Thanks to all of you as well.

Comments

  1. Thank you for this post. It illustrates one of my favorite scriptures, James 1:27. “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, to visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction…” I love to hear stories of Christian acts of service and compassion.

  2. Kevin Barney says:

    Is it a sin that I take pride in what the Church did there, even if I wasn’t directly involved? (g) Thanks for this on the ground report of wonderful Christian service.

  3. Julie M. Smith says:

    This is a great post–thank you.

  4. Mark, it is BCC that thanks you. What a blessing this post is. I second Kevin’s reflective pride. The sacrament scene was deeply moving to me.

  5. Steve Evans says:

    Mark, great post! Thanks for blessing us with your presence.

  6. Thanks for rekindling fond memories of canoing people in Louisiana a decade or so ago after a flood. for all the crazy politics that get pushed onto the church community, I am very proud of our ability to contribute to blessing the lives of strangers. thanks for the excellent posts.

  7. Thanks, Mark. This is the church I love.

  8. Thanks, Mark!

  9. Left Field says:

    As a recipient of the Helping Hands, I thank you. Every day I still see dozens or hundreds of reminders of the storm. Buildings are still being razed or gutted. People are still putting their lives back together.

    But we have come a long way. Your post reminded me of those first days when roads were blocked, roofs were smashed, debris was everywhere. Gas, groceries, and potable water were nowhere to be found. Electricity was still weeks away.

    a post-Katrina sacrament meeting in the storehouse.

  10. Left Field says:

    Sorry, I hit the wrong button while I was trying to figure out how to link to another excellent account of a sacrament meeting in the storehouse.

    Thank you.

  11. Thanks Mark. Your posts here have been wonderful!

  12. How great this post is! I am so proud of what the church has done, and also I feel unjustly excluded at the same time. I wanted to go and help. I’m an engineer and have been foreman on hundreds of jobsites doing both construction and demolition. I thought my skills would be useful. But I wasn’t allowed to go with my ward group because I am female. To me it’s deeply illustrative of the church as a whole. I love it so much. It does so many great things. It can be so loving and inclusive, and also heartlessly exclusionary, both at the same time. The mixture of pain and joy that I feel at times threatens to rend my heart in twain.

  13. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Thank you for sharing this!

  14. Proud Daughter of Eve says:

    Thank you for sharing this!

    Tatiana, I don’t know about your situation. Maybe your bishop or whoever was just being blind. Or maybe they were concerned about the safety of women in an area that had recently and so effectively demonstrated the addage that civilization is 24 hours and 2 full meals away from collapse. Or perhaps they didn’t have the time or materials to set up seperate facilities for women volunteers.

  15. Thanks for all the great posts. This one made me proud of the church and proud to be a member.

  16. Thanks for this story, Mark. My husband was in Alabama helping with clean-up General Conference weekend, and he also expressed how wonderful it was to hear those words from Pres. Hinckley while sitting there surrounded by all the other volunteers.

    I do agree with Tatiana that it’s sad that only the men are allowed to help in this way. I think it would have been wonderful if the women could have gone instead. The men would have gotten to spend good quality time with their children (and often the weekend is the only time for this). The women would have gotten a much needed break from those children, and an opportunity to use skills we don’t often get to (before I got married I cleaned up parks, sawed up trees, helped build things, etc, but since having children I’ve had very little opportunity to do so).

  17. Great post.

    Our stake here in Dallas Fort Worth was anticipating sending crews as well but in the end was not called on.

    My brother lives in Houston and did go for several weekends. He tells similar stories.

    Thanks for your posts. They have been quite good

  18. Left Field: It was a pleasure.

    Thanks for your responses, everybody. It was a side of the church I had never seen before, and I was fascinated how the church enables and helps regular members accomplish something so admirable.

    Tatiana and Vada, almost every group I worked with included some women. Your leaders were probably misinformed, so that is something we can improve on next time. The men camped on the grass outside the church, and the classrooms inside the building served as a kind of dormitory for women, couples and families. I think the only real requirement was that you had to be 16, or capable of working like an adult. A couple was there on their first anniversary, and they had moved a small round table out of a classroom into the hall. They were sharing a romantic meal: MRE chicken cacciatore, served by the romantic glow of an emergency candle. They’ll probably always remember their first anniversary!

  19. This is great, Mark–thanks. Last month I was in New Orleans for about a week volunteering; it is both inspiring to see how much has been done and astounding to see how much there is still left to do. So, Tatiana and Vada and anyone else interested, if you want to go help, do it!

  20. Thanks for sharing your experience. My mom went with the church effort as well (we’re from florida) and had some amazing experiences. As a family that often feels threatened by natural disasters, it was cathartic to be able to serve others who were living through our worst nightmare. She also was impressed by the church’s organizational ability, and felt so blessed to be able to put our belief in service in action in such a concrete way. As far as gender and the cleanup goes–my mom laughingly told me before going and after returning (she was the only woman from our stake to go) that she was probably of a lot more use than some of the men that went because she’s in such great shape and some of them, well, aren’t! Gender roles are hard to bend (why is it always the priesthood that help in the moves, for instance) but I feel like women like my mom, by showing their eagerness and ability to serve, will help those tired gender stereotypes fall by the side, albeit more slowly than some of us would like!

  21. It’s this kind of thing that makes all the little stuff we worry over fall away. This is living our pure religion. Thank you for sharing.

  22. will you please help me ? if willing kindly reply we shall contact again.I am from India.
    johnson.

  23. I am relatively certain that the folk at Meridian caused Hurricane Katrina using their secret voodoo powers (think about how much John Pratt must know about astrology).

    Also, how is it that Mark has his picture up already and I still don’t even have a biography written. Someone is being a slacker!

  24. Seriously, you let me down every day. I look to see if HP’s pic is up, and it’s not. Every day.

    I’ve heard the same thing connecting Meridian and cancer. And I don’t even think Mormons told me, I’m pretty sure no-Mos told me about that one. Which makes me believe it more.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 8,626 other followers