Most people of faith routinely give thanks for the blessings in their lives, and people living in River Forest tend to have more to be grateful for than most. Earlier this month, however, 31 members of the Grace Lutheran congregation in River Forest experienced what it means to be truly grateful for one’s blessings. For three days, they worked side-by-side with people who had lost nearly everything to a particularly horrific act of nature.

Grace Lutheran congregants had already raised $4,200 for Hurricaine Katrina relief with a Jazz festival, and also arranged the purchase of gift cards for Lowe’s, Home Depot and Menards. But some members of the congregation decided “something more has to be done,” so they took an idea to Grace Lutheran Pastor Bruce Modahl. He tabbed former Grace Lutheran school principal Jerry Koenig to organize a volunteer effort to provide direct assistance to people in Mississippi.

The response was far greater than they expected.

“In my fondest dream, I hoped for 20 people,” said Koenig. Instead, 47 volunteered, a number that was eventually winnowed to 31 by illness and work conflicts. The group, ranging in age from 14 to over 70 years old, left on a chartered bus on New Year’s Day and arrived at the Christus Victor Lutheran Church in Ocean Springs, Miss., the evening of Jan. 3. For three days they would labor at a variety of tasks as part of the Lutheran Episcopalian Disaster Response effort, shoveling tons of muck out of houses, working at a giant reliefwarehouse, and staffing an industrial-scale kitchen. Pastor Modahl did a bit of everything, but primarily counseled fearful and weary people who told hellish tales of heartbreaking material and personal loss.

Few if any of those of those who went down South were prepared for what they would experience. Modahl recalled the last leg of the trip, the bus filled with cheer and conversation as they approached the Gulf Coast. As they turned onto the coastal highway, physical ruin stretched out before them as far as they could see.

“Suddenly the bus fell silent,” said Modahl. “The level of devastation was just enormous.”

As if to underscore the storm’s ferocity, the group, which originally planned to travel to Long Beach, Miss., to the Grace Lutheran Church there, went instead to the Christus Victor Lutheran Church due to a connecting bridge being swept away.

“I thought things would be destroyed, but not gone,” said Koenig of the area where he stayed. “I don’t want to minimize the destruction that occurs in a tornado, but the devastation from Katrina goes on for hundreds and hundreds of miles.”

But as overwhelming as the scope of Katrina’s devastation is, Koenig said the work is not about numbers and statistics, but rather helping as many human beings as possible whose lives had been disrupted. Koenig used an old parable to illustrate the situation.

“There was a boy once who kept walking along the shoreline,” he related, “picking up beached starfish and tossing them back into the sea. Someone said, ‘There are hundreds of thousands of starfish washed up on the sand. You can’t make a dent in those numbers.’

“The boy just reached down, picked up another starfish, and threw it back into the surf. ‘No,’ he replied. “But I can make a difference for that starfish.”

That spirit infused the work of the Grace Lutheran volunteers as went about their tasks”not that they weren’t daunted at times by it all. Koenig worked on a “muck out” crew, people who shoveled mud and debris from still-standing houses, tore out all the drywall, disinfected all the surfaces, and made them ready for renovation.

“I felt helpless,” Koenig said. “It was like, where do we start.” What they did was get down to work, donning gloves, goggles, boots and respirator masks to protect them from omnipresent mold spores”though the masks didn’t block out the foul odors of rotting materials that had been marinating in stagnant sea water for four months. After two days of hard work and disinfecting with bleach, the structure resembled something that could be salvaged and be rebuilt into a home once again. In the process the volunteers saved the owners between $34,000 and $40,000 on estimated labor costs- just for the cleanup.

The group cleaned out three houses while they were in Mississippi, part of the one thousand houses the Lutheran Episcopalian Disaster Response organization has cleaned so far.

Irmgard Swanson spent most of her time working in a kitchen that fed 150 to 170 people daily. Working with a cornucopia of donated food, Swanson assisted several “highly creative” cooks who managed to produce breakfast, lunch and dinner. In addition, there were also “lots of pots and pans” to wash, and a constant supply of coffee, tea, and lemonade to maintain.

Preparing meals under such circumstances wasn’t easy.

“You look at what you have and try to make a meal from it,” Swanson said of the operation. She also spent a morning working at a huge warehouse that served as a clearinghouse for streams of donations that included everything from food to furniture, clothing to personal hygiene products, mattresses to diapers.

More than money

Beyond physical and monetary assistance, the greatest gift Grace Lutheran’s volunteers gave their Mississippi brethren was hope. For many coastal Mississippians, that essential element had washed out to sea in the dark days after Katrina, whose monstrous waves had erased entire towns from the map.

And in the midst of the stink and sweat and long hours of physical exertion, those who had journeyed to Mississippi to give of themselves to others in such dire need soon found themselves receiving something profoundly moving in return.

“People said to us, ‘You have been God’s blessing to us,'” Modahl recalled. “Man, that’s humbling.”

“I didn’t expect the wonderful feeling of community,” said Swanson. “It was so pronounced.”

Returning north to their comfortable and blessedly intact homes, the volunteers also had a new perspective.

“You come back different,” said Swanson. “My goodness, we have so much. We could live a lot simpler lives and be just as happy.”

They also insist that while the wind and waves are gone, Katrina is far from over, that the task of providing assistance to others is just beginning. Koenig quotes one estimate that the cleanup, repair and rebuilding related to Katrina will take eight years. It’s important that people not forget, he said, not allow the tragedy to become last month’s news. and fade from consciousness.

“Even though it’s not in the news, keep volunteering and donating,” said Swanson, who said that her group plans to gather together in a few weeks to revisit their experiences, and to share them with others at Grace Lutheran.

Modahl said that the congregation plans a week long return trip to Mississippi starting the day after Easter.

Koenig said he hopes as many people as possible around this area follow his church’s example, in whatever manner they see appropriate.

“Not everybody can travel down to Mississippi, but they can do something,” he said. “See what you can do, and do it.”

“This is how Christians work together to express who we are,” said Swanson. “How we use what [God’s] given us to help others.”

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