I have been on several mission trips in the past- 2 to different parts of Mexico, one in Nicaragua, one in Costa Rica, and one in Guatemala. Each trip touched me in a different way and taught me something different. But what has remained consistent in each trip is that, as much as I go into it thinking that I am going to be a world-changer, I always find that the people I encounter and the things I see change and shape me much more than I impact them. This trip was no different…
We arrived in Moore at around 11:30 on Sunday night and split up between two different homes where families had volunteered to host us. They provided us with a place to stay and a meal to start off our days. Our work began early Monday morning as we met for orientation with a group called Samaritan’s Purse. They are probably most well-known for “Operation Christmas Child” which sends shoe boxes of presents around the world to poor children each year at Christmas time. I have loved this organization and the projects that they are a part of for years now, but my appreciation for them deepened even more after seeing their disaster relief efforts. Our group was joined with others as we were assigned to a specific house. This is where the adventure begins…
As we drove through Moore, one of the things that really struck me was that there were complete homes and neighborhoods untouched by the tornado while others, even right next door, were completely demolished. It looked as if a bomb had gone off; there was debris everywhere, smashed cars and fences, and homes that were bare except for the remaining foundation. It was so surreal to me to drive through the town; it seemed like something out of a movie… except that it was real. These were people’s homes, their memories, their lives.
As we pulled up to our first home, we got right to work. The yard was covered in debris… you name it, we found it… legos, baby clothes, wood, shingles, insulation, shattered glass, pages of books… the list could go on and on. We began moving trash to the curb, we cut up trees and hauled off limbs, part of our group was up on the roof trying to tarp up the holes and the damaged parts. The inside of the house was covered in shards of glass, there was debris lodged into the walls, dirt was everywhere, and it smelled of mildew and mold. In the middle of our workday, two kids came over and, of course, I had to talk to them (I always find it much easier to talk to children than I do talking to adults). It turned out that little Luke and Emma had braved the tornado in the shelter in this couple’s backyard. Luke told me how he was such a “trooper” and we talked about Star Wars, Legos, school, why I shouldn’t eat at Chuck-E-Cheese, and whatever else you could think of that a five year old would want to tell me. I met and talked to Amanda, the kids’ mom and Heather’s (the homeowner) sister. They had all braved the storm in this shelter, along with Heather’s twin 21 month year old girls. Talking with this family was so humbling. This was the second major tornado that they had been through (1999 as well), but their outlook was so amazing. “It is just stuff” they said, while packing up what little survived and preparing to leave their home indefinitely. At the end of the day, we presented them with a Bible from the Franklin Graham Association and tearfully said our goodbyes. Serving Heather and James was such an honor and I pray that they relocate and start over remembering that God is the restorer of all things.
On the second day our group split up. I went with the boys (to stay with my hubby) and the other group went to a different location. Our first stop was Donna’s house. This house had already been cleared of much of the debris by a Samaritan’s Purse group that had come the day before us, but it was in dire need of a new tarp job on the roof. We got up and started cleaning it off and putting up the tarp. This was my first time ever tarping a roof. I had been up on several roofs- one really tall one on a church we were building in Mexico, and then again with Habitat for Humanity putting shingles on, but I have never had to tarp a roof. This was a new experience for me and truthfully, one that was short-lived. I ended up being the phone-answerer for our leader (which undoubtedly is my least favorite job seeing as I have a phone-phobia) and spent most of my time talking with Donna and her grandson Trevor. They told us where they were and what they did during the tornado, what they were thinking, and how they have been doing in the aftermath. I was serenaded with a mandolin, a didgeridoo, and a bongo drum. Trevor was such a smart, well-rounded young man. I immensely enjoyed my talk with this bright second-grader who was actually disappointed that school ended early (I can’t say I would share his sentiment). But one of my favorite parts of the whole trip came when we finished the roof. Dennis (our leader) presented Donna with a Bible that had been signed by each of us. It was such a beautiful moment. We all laughed and cried and said a tearful goodbye, knowing full-well that it was only a “see you later.”
We moved on to our second neighborhood, this one was by far the most destroyed of all that we saw. We began at Neal and Susan’s house. They were both nurses and Neal had worked at the hospital that was destroyed, although thankfully he wasn’t there that day. He recounted tearfully that they had been watching the news and the broadcaster had said something that he had never heard them say before, “If you can’t get underground, get out!” He and his wife jumped in their car and headed straight into the tornado in order to get out of the neighborhood. Thankfully the tornado was moving slowly enough that they were able to get out, but when they came back, everything that they had was destroyed. We were only able to do a little bit of work on their roof because of the heavy winds, but it was so moving to talk to Neal. I can’t imagine what it would have been like for them to come back into their old neighborhood and not even be able to recognize where they were. I pray also for them as they begin to recover from this. He did mention moving back to North Carolina, which is something he had been saying for years. Maybe that’s where they are supposed to be. Wherever they end up, I pray that God brings them peace and comfort as they begin to move on.
A few houses down from Neal and Susan’s house was Nancy’s home. This was our last project of the day, and because the part of the roof we needed to tarp was on the same side as the wind was blowing, we could actually do hers. This was probably my hardest but most rewarding job. It was the hardest because I ended up being the “on the ground,” “stand around while everyone else does something cool” person. Dennis left me with his phone (again) and aside from making a few pre-nailed boards, I did nothing but hand them up whenever they were needed. I struggled so much with this. I didn’t feel like I was a part of the team and I didn’t feel like I was doing anything important. But I really got a reality check when I had the chance to talk to Nancy, well listen, rather. This was the most rewarding part. I loved listening to her story and just talking with her. When the guys finished with the roof, we presented her with a Bible as well that had been signed by each of us. When we presented it to her, she cried, and we cried. It was so beautiful. She proceeded to tell us how her parents used to watch Billy Graham on T.V. every week and how she had recently lost both of her parents. She was so touched by this gift and it was so encouraging to see God continue to work in his mysterious ways. She invited us back anytime and told us we were family, and it is true.
One of the coolest things that I saw was so many people unleashing generosity. Of course my team was ready to get out and serve, but I was really touched by how many others were willing to get out and do whatever they could. There were people bringing around food, water, Gatorade, and supplies every few hours. There were big organizations like the Red Cross but there were also just random, every day people offering whatever they had to be used. It reminds me of a sermon lately where we were told that, like David and like Moses, we are to use whatever we have in our hands to glorify God. It doesn’t have to be glamorous… David had some stones and a sling and Moses had a stick, but subsequently, using what they had, one killed a giant and the other led his people to the Promised Land. It was such a blessing to see how many people wanted to help and how many people stepped up to make a difference.
In conclusion, it truly is more blessed to give than to receive. In giving of ourselves, and serving wholeheartedly, in listening to stories, and offering a helping hand, we are blessed. Yes, we give and it is dirty, sweaty and exhausting, but in giving, we get back more than we ever thought we could receive. These people we helped didn’t care about the clean yard or the tarp on the roof, although we probably saved them days worth of work. Instead, they thrived on our hugs, on our love, on a listening ear and tears of solidarity. And in return, WE were the ones who were blessed- blessed to have heard their stories, to have walked beside them, and to have talked and prayed with them. Jesus knew what he was saying when he said, “It is more blessed to give than it is to receive” (Acts 20:35). In serving, we become more like Christ; He does a work in our hearts when we put others above ourselves. We saw firsthand what Jesus says in the Beatitudes- “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). God uses his people, those with hearts that are inclined to his, to bless his people. I am so thankful that we were able to be used for the glory of God! May he continue to bless the people of Moore, Oklahoma.