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Mission to the Gulf Coast

by Tiffany Knowlin and Nick Elliott
New World Outlook
March / April 2008

‘Twas the day after Christmas, all the presents had been opened, and five South Carolinians and one Texan eagerly jumped into their cars to drive to Theodore, Alabama.

From South Carolina, our journey to the Gulf Coast took 10 hours. The six of us arrived in Theodore at about 10:00 p.m. and we settled into Theodore United Methodist Church as we anticipated our next day working on a home damaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Early on Wednesday December 27, 2006, we gathered for breakfast and devotion. After devotion, we met our seventh team member at a recently painted home, our project for the week. As we entered the front door, we quickly learned that looks definitely were deceiving. Though we all dressed in layers of clothing, we found it difficult to withstand the chilling temperature inside this very old home. In fact, we ventured to the nearest Wal-Mart to purchase fire logs to warm us as we worked.

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Joyfully, volunteers work to make the house livable and comfortable

Upon entering the house, we encountered mildewed ceilings, rotted counter tops, sunken floors, no running water, and rooms without electricity. Our task was to “gut out” a home we could not believe anyone had ever lived in, let alone a home in which people were currently living. In the midst of substandard living conditions, we met a slightly older, medium-sized woman dressed in a T-shirt, cropped pants, and sandals. Mrs. Reed invited us into her home and conveyed her gratitude to us for traveling so far to help repair her home. We began each workday with prayer and turned up the volume on our gospel music, praising God as we tore down the interior walls of Mrs. Reed’s home and cleaned her yard.

During our last night of devotion, reflection, and Communion, we focused on Matthew’s depiction of how Jesus will judge the nations. Jesus says, “for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me…..And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, in as much as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.” (Matthew 25: 35-36; 40. NKJV)

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A volunteer installs and sets new windows in Mrs. Reed's house

By most of the world’s standards, Mrs. Reed would be considered one of the “least of these.” Like many in our country and our world, Mrs. Reed is poor and marginalized. She had been rendered invisible by the fact that no one had significantly acknowledged her as a person or the substandard living conditions in which she had lived for years. In fact, although Mrs. Reed has lived in her neighborhood for 13 years, many of her neighbors did not know that anyone was living in her home. One neighbor commented, “I thought the house was condemned.” In efforts to improve Mrs. Reed’s circumstances, our team worked to “gut out” her home, but we also established relationships for her with local community organizations such as the Red Cross. The Red Cross donated several thousand dollars to repair Mrs. Reed’s roof and ensure that proper plumbing was installed in her home. In addition, other UMVIM teams were scheduled throughout the following months to advance and complete the work that our team had begun.

As I continue to reflect upon our time with Mrs. Reed, I am reminded of the mutuality of ministry and relationships that were established among fellow brothers and sisters in the faith. God exalted and acknowledged Mrs. Reed and reminded us that it was one of the “least of these” that answered Jesus’ call to welcome our group of seven strangers into her home each day. It was one of the “least of these” who offered us fresh fruit, homemade cookies, and juice each day, who extended an open invitation to us to return to her home anytime we are in Alabama.

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Mrs. Reed (first row,second from left) welcomed the Volunteers in Mission team whoreconstructed and refurbished her Alabama home. First row: CandyBenson, Sharon Reed, Tiffany Knowlin, Ebony Abram. Second row:Carleathea Benson, Jacquita Smith, Cornell Swain, and Elijah Brown.

Our team traveled to Alabama to answer the call to serve the least of these. As we answered that call, Christ honored and served us through the very one whom we went to serve. Undoubtedly, each member of our team has been forever changed. God stretched our minds to recognize that Mrs. Reed is not merely one of the least of these, but she is an honored servant of Christ. We were blessed by the daily visitation of the Holy Spirit embodied in Mrs. Reed’s acts of kindness, and we pray that Mrs. Reed was blessed as the Holy Spirit used us to improve her home and help her form relationships with her neighbors.

Time with Mrs. Reed also challenged our team to consider the poor and substandard conditions of our neighbors who live in our own backyards. We traveled to the Gulf Coast; however, we came to recognize that there are Mrs. Reeds in many places beyond Theodore, Alabama. She resides in New Orleans, LA; Atlanta, GA; Columbia, SC; Boston, MA; and throughout the United States. Such realization influences us to return to the Gulf Coast; to travel across the United States and around the world; to educate ourselves about housing policies and other laws that impact the poor; and to continue to answer God’s call to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Because of our common faith, common love, and common status as sons and daughters of God, when Mrs. Reed aches, we ache. When she is in need, we are in need. Our interconnectedness will not allow us to turn our backs on Mrs. Reed and others like her.

As we continue into this New Year, each of us is challenged not only to love, acknowledge, and make visible the Mrs. Reeds of this world, but to view people as God views them. God not only “sees” Mrs. Reed; God honors her. I Samuel 2:30 notes, “those who honor me I will honor….” We too are called to honor God’s servants as we do mission, seek justice, and create justice in God’s world.

It is my prayer that each of us will position ourselves to be stretched and challenged as we put our faith into action. May we and our world be forever transformed as we begin to view and to honor each other as God views and honors us.