Reflections from Rev. Charles at Back Bay Mission Biloxi, MS 2016


I am about to arrive in Biloxi MS, deep in the southern part of the state. Just as South Church Kennebunkport is a gathering place to be spiritually nourished and fed, and then to go forth to serve ~ this block of time at Back Bay Mission offers me a similar opportunity.
I will be learning and listening. I will be fed before going forth to serve with the gospel light burning deep within.

Thank you for your support to allow me this opportunity of learning and serving. In these first weeks, groups from IL, CT and WI United Church of Christ congregations will be here each for one week before the South Church group arrives on April 23. Next week I'll be sending word of the first group here, hopefully with some pictures. As you hold me in prayer, so shall I hold each of you as we worship and serve the God we share.

Going to Biloxi: In my last day driving here to Biloxi; I took a local state road out of Charleston SC towards.It opened my eyes to the spectrum of this country; middle class homes andmany in poor condition, through small towns with blinkers and quiet streets, abandoned buildings and corner shops. Past three enormous car manufacturing plants (Honda,Hyundai, Kia) now in the U.S. while listening to NPR, Cd's (Easton Corbin, Lady Antebellum)and local radio. Then the main road again with rest areas with orange/red colored soil. As I've begun reading Paul Theroux's "Deep South" I feel like the alternateroad taken before returning to I-95 to here was a partial glimpse into his experience. Ialso stopped at the Rosa Parks Library and Museum in Montgomery, AL; on the site where she was arrested not so terribly long ago. Already, my eyes are opened wider and my horizons expanded to the contrasts before me.

Week One: This week at Back Bay Mission, two church groups; Chicago area and Fond du Lac Wisconsin. I'm in the Volunteer Housing home, sharing comfortable space with Ellen and Bill Matten of PA. We have overlapped previous years here, kind and solidly rooted folks. Worship at the Baptist Church in Gulfport - warm reception and such a rich, meaningful service... exceeds anything I can corral with words. Such is the nature of God.

First day at work site, prepping a vacated apartment for painting tomorrow; later to be new residence for individual in the Micah Center housing settlement program. And today (Thursday) we finished our work; fresh paint throughout including all the trim, bathroom renovations, repairs around the entry door and all windows washed along with some new blinds. All ready for a move in.
The Mission
has approx 15 such apartments around the community for their "Home At Last" program. Staff work with individuals in setting goals and steps to achieve them with final intent of 'graduating' into greater independence and self-reliance.

Week Three: How is it that folks qualify for the Mission's support/assistance? If I understood correctly, for a family of four, their income must be no more than 80% of the area (county?) median of $42,200 or $33,760. Most of the folks currently receiving aid through Back Bay Mission are at approx 35% of that figure or $14,770. Thus it is not surprising that housing upkeep/maintenance is often at the bottom of the list when food, transportation, utilities and the like is considered. If the Mission can help folks stay in a safe and efficient home since nearly all do not have the 'safety nets' many of us have in place, this is a major achievement.

This week, one of the homeowners (three generations in the home) shared with us his story of drug dependency - being clean for twelve years. A veteran of the US Navy (son now in the Air Force), now working at area large grocery story at beginning wage of $9/hour and now up to $11. New group from Wisconsin now on the new build site. Finishing up somesheet rock on the interior and I worked with some folks doing caulking around the entry area, first coat of paint on exterior trim and nail gun on brick strapping that had apparently been done incorrectly. More caulking around front door entry, second coat of trim paint today plus putting up some scaffolding for working up/over the garage; painting up high and later installing a vent. Not sure what is next.

At our 4pm group meeting with Dr. Alice - Director of BBM- we learned how those of the Micah Day Center for those experiencing homelessness made a request for a garden. The staff thought a great idea, but we can't take this on. 'No, we'll do it - work it -care of it...just get us started.' And so there is a raised bed vegetable garden in back of the Mission dorm building. And what of the fruits (or vegetables) of their labor. Dr. Alice thought, 'Think about selling the items.' No, No -- the Micah Center clients wish to provide any surplus of fresh produce to area soup kitchen and feeding programs for others. Grace and gardening at work.

In just three more days, our South Church group of 15 arrives,Saturday afternoon-April 23. Will be good to see them all!

Week Four: "Ladies first," was the call to all assembled from Brian- director of the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen. With a rich, southern accent, Brian welcomed four of us (two Wisconsin, one DC and myself) earlier in the day. We helped serve about 55 for breakfast, then assisted two cooks fixing the noon meal. Dozens of can to open (carrots, black-eyed peas), peeling LOTS of shrimp, fixing salad for over a 100.... along side Abe who was the master chef of an incredible Jambalaya dish ! Over fifty 'lunch to go' went out at 10:30AM (via other local church volunteers) and made final preparations for the noon meal, approx 80-90 came through the line; many of whom I recognized from breakfast. Tremendous program working along side local folks.

Now Saturday and preparing for the South Church group arriving in a few hours, then another 15 arriving tonight from North Hampton UCC, NH. Sunday we'll all attend worship at First Missionary Baptist Church where I've gone the past three weeks- a warm and rich and energetic spirit-filled gathering. We'll be fixing our own meals as a large group together. And no idea until Monday morning where we will be working. Likely two different sites, if not three. Sunday worship brought warm greetings and welcome twice from the pulpit AND a spontaneous invitation for a potluck supper on Wednesday!! Amazing hospitality.

The service itself, warm spirit and Spirit-filled.... With some memorable thoughts to take home: "You don't look as bad as what you've been through" "Who wants to follow a grumpy Christian to church?" When in the fire, a learning is the beginning" "We've been in the dogs but got no fleas". All part of the theme of God being with us in the midst of life's trials/fires - and we come stronger and refined. AND "WE DON'T LOOK AS BAD AS WHAT WE'VE BEEN THROUGH!"

On drive back to the Mission building, quick stop at Miss Deborah's home where we worked last year. Warm greetings she extended as we visited, now several months after brain surgery. Today we began at a new worksite, Ms. Roberta in Gulfport. Some folks replacing a malfunctioning ceiling fan and adding a fixture in the utility, painting an interior hallway and exterior trim and carport; everything will need two coats. We'll be back tomorrow (Tuesday) to continue. Story is that she was out of her house after Katrina, temporarily to Hattiesburg to the north. Upon returning, had to live on her porch and in a tent for extended period of time due to water / wind damage to the house. However this did not deter her from offering porch space and tent options for others on her property as the need grew. Periodically she would let the Red Cross know that more meals were needed as they provided three meals/day to her and the others in the initial crisis. We have completed exterior painting and tomorrow need to do second coat of ceiling paint in back hallway (doors have been re-hung and trim has second coat) plus do two coats on the kitchen/eating area ceiling.

Today we woke up about 5:30am with tornado watch eight miles to the west. No problem here, lots and lots of rain-thunder-lightning. Flash flooding in the area all morning so we stayed put; card games and visiting, puzzles and eating. No work regardless of clearing skies due to mud and being in/out private homes. Afternoon some folks went for walks, out to the Visitor Center for fine film of Biloxi and Katrina, trip to souvenir place and tacos for dinner.... PLUS 15 pounds of crawfish along with home-made strawberry shortcake. Tomorrow, Friday, we are back to the jobsite; Ms. Roberta's house for many of us. Micah Center and food pantry will likely be particularly busy due to the Mission being closed in light of the storm earlier. The warmth and affection amongst everyone here is a great blessing. And as I scanned the 'card of thanks' we prepared with all our messages to the folks of First Missionary Baptist of Gulfport for our generous feed last night; I am touched once again. A few quotes from the revival last night that seven of us stayed for after dinner:

-Beware of sidewalk spectators who tear you down. -They wish you gloom in your glory. -If you don't give you, God will show up. -Not pushed by history but led by a dream.

Week Five: We wrapped up a rich and rewarding week. Our crew at Roberta's home left with hugs and an invitation to return to her home, Roberta insisted. Painting, caulking, electrical work is done.... a bit of final follow up for next group. Yesterday, a neighbor was driving by her home- stopped and said, "Roberta - those folks working on your home.... I recognize them from being at our church on Sunday " We never knew precisely how we are witnesses of light and love. We were touched by her stories of taking in other families years earlier even while she and her own family were living on the porch and sleeping in tents in the backyard while her own home could not be occupied.

Our two groups blended in such a tremendous and seamless manner, as evident in the group photo we did after breakfast on Friday - in our respective t-shirts, alternating colors/people. I love going with this NH group once again. We all went out to The Shed last night for dinner, a funky and delicious bbq local place of great reputation- such fun. While we had a little more than usual time of waiting for supplies/work on occasion, overall a very fine week. The variety of experiences, participation / witnessing of community formation, time/experiences in local worship and meeting homeowners (often does not occur), conversations in the food pantry - the Loaves/Fishes - the Micah Day Center for the homeless ~ these have been the building blocks of God at work as we have been weaving a colorful tapestry of new creation. Also in our time together, we played card games, became further sensitized to the homeless and Thursday had tremendous storms/local flooding here, enjoyed music/singing of our high school youth, trips to Target and Krispy Kreme, seeing jumping fish, outings to souvenir shop, Katrina Memorial, kayak /bayou trip venture and memories of work at the homes on Sweetgum and Fortson accompanied by our conversations with families there. Hopefully in some small way, we shared the gospel light we feel within -- and found ourselves enlightened in return.

We are so grateful for the support in the form of prayers, messages and finances from you ~ our South Church family. We carried your affection to the people and places before us. As we prepare to head to the airport in an hour or so, we are doing a final cleaning (the NH group left at 4:30am for their flight!). It has been a further blessing to have Laura joining me/us these past two weeks. All of us are on the 10:30am flight to Atlanta, then we depart company: Laura and I go to Pittsburgh for Mike's graduation (before returning to Biloxi), Nancy returns to FL, Larry/Miriah to CT and the rest to Portland. One more sojourn nearly complete as the journey continues forth.

Final Reflections: As I leave the Gulf Coast after six weeks at Back Bay Mission and return to my Maine, these final reflections.A rich and fulfilling week with the South Church group of 15 along side the No. Hampton UCC NH group, still close in my heart after their departure. During the Board of Directors meeting the following week, I had ample time with members during meals and with BBM staff during breaks. I learned more of a creative micro-loan program, KIVA, I would like to further explore. On the Board is a Texas minister who fondly remembered both my folks while he was a student at Eden Seminary in St. Louis. The world is getting smaller!

I am grateful to have spent 1/2 day in Atlanta at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center and surrounding grounds with my daughter Laura. Before arriving in Atlanta, we visited Selma AL, walking over the Edmund Pettus Bridge (site of Bloody Sunday in 1965) and re-tracing the Freedom March road to Montgomery as well as visited the Rosa Parks Museum in that city. After six weeks in the deep south and seeing the living history of those who have experienced such prejudice and segregation, it brought home to me the critical importance of King’s message of social justice for all of God’s created people.

The work continues. It was hard to leave Biloxi as a group from Muncie, Indiana was just beginning work on a home ready for painting and caulking – that which I most enjoy doing!
Next year.....
The home belongs to a local school teacher who had water within twelve inches of her ceiling – lost everything except what was in storage in an overhead crawl space. During Katrina, she evacuated to Hattiesburg (about an hour to the north) and was amongst 14 others in an attic during the storm. Back Bay Mission received grant from ‘energy efficiency/conservation’ funds for her home; new windows, a cooling and heating system in addition to the new roof and other work being done with Mission funds. As to the hole rotten through the sub floor in the bathroom now exposed.... that too will all be fixed by volunteers.

Whether from Indiana or Maine or Mississippi, we are all God’s people – of that, I am certain.