In 2012, Campus Ministry took one trip of 16 participants to Joplin, MO to help the city rebuild from the devastating EF-5 tornado that destroyed a large portion of their town on May 22, 2011. Our project for the week was helping Catholic Charities of Joplin, MO to prepare their new office space. We spent the majority of the week painting the inside of their new building. While our work will largely go unnoticed, all who enter Catholic Charities' office in Joplin will walk into a physically welcoming atmosphere that, for many residents, will serve as a first-contact point with the social justice of the Catholic Church. The following entries are reflections on the trip from the students.
Toward the end of my senior year in high school, I received a poster from UD including some of the various activities that students got involved in. I was immediately drawn to ASB. Not just for what it could offer me, but for what I could give back to a community in a different environment. Something about cramming into a van with a few other people for a common cause excited me. You're no longer just an individual but a group of individuals, all with various backgrounds and stories. The experiences I had in Joplin are some that I will treasure forever. Christ humbled us in that we served the community not with the lifting up of walls and nailing shingles, but with the painting of walls that will soon serve as the new office building for Catholic Charities. The gathering of faithful Catholics for a faith-filled cause was the best way I could have spent my spring break. I learned a lot from living closely with those folks; praying morning and evening prayer, the making and of sharing meals, bedtime stories, conversations ranging from faith to what the future may hold, singing songs, and most importantly giving back to a community in need.
One of the most profound experiences I had was when we were at a memorial dedicated to those who were affected by the devastating tornado. It is one thing to recognize that you are blessed but it is another to truly realize just how blessed you are. As I sat at the memorial, I could not help but think how quickly everything must have happened. One minute, your house is standing strong and the next minute it is completely torn down, leaving nothing but the materials that once held it together. Many people in Joplin lost their entire homes and this was challenging for me to fathom. When things are going well, it can be difficult to truly realize just how blessed we really are. The material things of this world are just material things of the world. At the end of the day, it is the family that forms the home. It is the family that truly matters. Sitting there at the memorial, I thought about the ways God had blessed me and how seldom I thanked him for it. We are dust and to dust we shall return. Even though Joplin was deeply affected, they are rebuilding. The tornado has had both negative and positive effects. They have people coming from all around to help out. They have each other, and most importantly, they have a growing amount of Hope.
Alternative Spring Break required inaction in order to be active. I had to let go of almost every commitment, be it school or family and friends—to agree to do "nothing"—in order to do something. When Spring Break was approaching, there was a part of me that was far from the enthusiastic, giving person I had thought myself to be when I had committed to ASB the previous semester. I think it's easy for us to get worked up in our own little corners of the universe. "This is where I'm supposed to be, this is what God made me for, and I pray that I'm doing His will," becomes the morning mantra of the troops preparing for the constant battle of the Church Militant. And that's great. But an opportunity to step into someone else's reality, if only for a week, is God's humbling reminder that there is always more we can give.
Visiting the "Beacon of Hope" memorial park in Joplin, Missouri was one of the more bittersweet moments of our week. Built across the street from the haunting remains of what was once St. John's Hospital, the stark contrast between tranquility and destruction strengthened our dedication to the mission of regeneration we had travelled to the city to serve. Silverware, keys, doorknobs, and shards of colored glass that were found in the rubble are cemented together as a reminder of the everyday lives they were a part of before the F5 tornado struck. I tried to picture the hands that had passed over these fragmented pieces of "home," and I wondered what they'd endured.
7 days passed too quickly, and as we drove away, I admitted to myself that I don't know that I'll ever step foot into that grace-filled town again. But I know that God will continue to send people to help and to heal by hitting the "pause button" on the lives of those who are willing. And though I was initially reluctant, giving in and slowing my own life down for a week allowed me and the Alternative Spring Break group of 2012 to be woven forevermore into the fabric of Joplin, Missouri's revival.
My mother recently told me a story of a friend of hers who is a professor at a university. One day he asked his class the following question: "What would you rather do to help the poor: spend the day working in a soup kitchen or spend all day praying for them?" The entire class decided on the first choice as their work of preference. Which would you choose? This simple example illustrates the need we all have for a great lesson I reflected on during my week of work in Joplin, Missouri. It is so easy for us to place a value on our actions that often we do it without thinking. Unfortunately, since our ways are not God's ways, and our thoughts so far beneath His thoughts, if we persist in slapping price tags on our work, we will inevitably miscalculate. When we are feeling particularly charitable, it is a natural tendency to be inclined toward charitable acts that are obvious, direct, and clearly appreciated. Which is the easier battle to fight? One in which the end is in sight? One filled with the rewards of seeing the thing accomplished and the radiating gratitude from the smiling faces of those we have helped? Or one in which the end is vague, or perhaps non-existent? When all our hardest efforts seem to bring nothing to completion and assistance is only indirectly given and indirectly received? It is in those causes that the temptation gnaws at us to consider our efforts to be insignificant—unneeded—a drop in the bucket we will never see filled.
What a life lesson it is to fight for a cause, not as a hero accomplishing tremendous feats of outward charity, but as nothing more than just another person doing his very small part; to take that small part and embrace it as such, and to perform it with as much vitality, as strong a will, as great a persistence, as unflagging an energy, and as intense a love as the mightiest deed we could ever hope to accomplish. It is not for us to expect God's work to satisfy us—we must learn to be satisfied in doing God's work. Applications of this diligent and uncalculating love surround us daily. The poor we will always have with us, yet who can over-value even the smallest donation of time or money to provide food for the hungry? The evil of abortion cannot be eradicated from a fallen world, yet how many lives have been saved by the prayers of men and women who will never hear the tearful thank-you of a new mother or see the little face of a child they have helped deliver from the shadow of death? And how many homeless, needy people have we helped in the filling in of holes, and the fixing and cleaning of bathrooms, and the border-taping, and the wall-paper scraping, and the painting of shockingly colored walls of the Catholic Charities' new office building, though we will never see the families moving into their new homes, or the lifted spirits of those receiving counseling services, or even the completion of the office building itself? We do not see as God sees. To fight for these hidden or hopeless causes with all we've got in us, and never weary of their hiddenness or hopelessness—that is the inspiration I received from ASB, 2012. "Do not think that love in order to be genuine has to be extraordinary. What we need is to love without getting tired. Be faithful in small things because it is in them that your strength lies." –Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta
Originally I am a missionary kid from Mozambique, on the east coast of Africa. Knowing my parents would not be in Dallas over spring break, I decided on participating in the Alternative Spring Break when I had first heard about it last semester. But as the time drew closer and I got to know the other volunteers better, especially our campus ministers, I realized what a blast I was in for. Certainly waking up at 6 am every morning and not being able to lounge around in your pajamas till noon has its drawbacks, but spending an entire week with such incredibly loving people is so much more refreshing than sleeping in ever could be. I wouldn't have missed this week for pretty much anything. Coming from an unusual perspective, having grown up on the other side of the ocean and with a rather specific approach to missions, besides not being Catholic, I was particularly intrigued about what I would find in Joplin and how it would all pan out. I was quite gratified to observe the partnership among the different denominations of Christian churches in helping each other to restore Joplin. But what I noticed overwhelmingly among the inhabitants was an insuppressible determination to revive from the ashes of their shattered city. The hope was pervasive. Even though we did not spend much time with many people from Joplin, we were able to create close friendships among ourselves by bedtime story-reading in New Jersey accents, mid-evening shower trips to the YMCA, early-morning daily mass with the elderly of the community, mid-day paint attacks from behind with brushes and tape, and late-afternoon walks on the trails in some nearby woods. This was most definitely the best way I could have spent my spring break, and I am so very glad I did.
In the weeks preparing for Alternative Spring Break I was very excited, but I did not expect it to be different than other mission work that I have done in the past. I have been on many different service trips, but I had never done relief work before. When we arrived in Joplin, we drove around the town and through the path of the tornado. When we arrived at St. Mary's Catholic Church we had the opportunity to walk through the rubble. The only thing left standing from the tornado was a large iron cross. We then drove to the high school and saw that there was nothing left to it other than fallen debris. We worked in Joplin 10 months after the tornado, and there was still pieces of blown debris stuck high in the trees. Walking around such extreme destruction invoked an unexpected emotional response.
When doing other types of service work, such as working with the materially poor, it was easy to see the source of someone's suffering as being the result of another person's sin. For example, poverty is often the result of another person's greed and desire for power. However, in Joplin there was nobody to point the finger at and blame for so much suffering since their suffering came from a natural disaster. How could God allow for this tornado to come through and cause so much suffering? As I began to ask this question, I began to notice the response of the people in Joplin. They were not bitter or hopeless. Rather, the community united together with joy and hope. Everywhere you looked buildings were spray painted with phrases such as "hope and trust in God." The people were thankful and joyful. Rather than turning from God when faced with such a difficult situation and difficult question to answer, they constantly turned to God and focused on him above all things. The people of Joplin truly are a people of joy and hope and are an inspiration to me of how to truly live a life trusting and hoping in God.
I had heard about ASB in my freshman year but I never got around to researching it in depth. This year, I saw a flyer that was encouraging people to sign up. Even though I had missed the deadline, they let me apply anyway. I felt like God was calling me to participate because everything fell into place.
When we set off on our 6-hr van ride to Missouri, I had no idea what to expect. It was not until Monday morning of the trip that we found out what we would be doing for the people of Joplin during the week. While we were there, we went to Mass every day at 7am. Several of the parishioners came up to us after Mass and told us stories about the tornado that destroyed their town. They were so welcoming and friendly to us.
Later, we drove around the town to see the damage that was caused by the tornado. When I saw how their Catholic Church, High School, hospital, and many houses had been destroyed, I thought of all of the people who had lost their lives that day. It brought tears to my eyes to think about what their families must be going through.
During this trip, I learned to think of others rather than myself. Even though we
didn't have enough time to paint the entire office building, we still did what we
could for Jesus and the people of Joplin.
Our ASB group became very close through the course of the week. Our team leaders, Scott and Jennifer, were a source of inspiration to me. They made sure we all got to Mass on time each morning, and they led us through Morning and Evening prayer each day. By watching their example, my own prayer life has improved. I am so thankful that I had the chance to go on Alternative Spring Break and I hope to be able to sign up next year!
Alternative Spring Break was one of the best times I've had since coming to UD. I am so thankful that I was able to go! The work we were assigned was not what we had expected, but I was so glad to avoid working with power tools—I was honestly worried about my ability to build houses, since it has literally NEVER been tested. But luckily, God provides, and I am so glad we could help Catholic Charities with their new office. Cleaning, taping, painting, and bonding with everyone was very fun, and I don't have to worry now that whatever construction work I would have helped with otherwise would be unsound.
On the spiritual side, it was a wonderful time for growth—like a week-long retreat. We got to practice mentally engaging in Mass, even before the crack of dawn first thing in the morning, and all day we had to allow the Spirit to give us patience and endurance, even when physically drained. Even the harrowing bus ride back through Oklahoma in the rain, with no streetlights, was educational—I'm pretty sure I've never prayed a rosary (or three) so fervently!
Overall, it was enriching in every way—but most of all it was a lesson in hope. I wondered initially why the people of Joplin chose to rebuild, but it really showed faith and pride in their town that they stuck it out. I cannot imagine how much humility and grace it takes to accept help from new waves of volunteers every week, but the people we encountered in Joplin were extremely patient and grateful, which made the experience, for me, even more rewarding.
I remember visiting the site where the tornado had struck. One image that stays in my mind was of all the dead trees still sticking out of the ground, but around them new construction was starting to take place. For having seen so much destruction, this town still had a lot of hope. Where the Joplin High School had once been, the sign now read Hope High School. At the site of the Catholic Church, all that remains is a large metal cross with a small colorful cross leaning against it that says "God loves you". It was so powerful to see a town that had seen so much destruction and loss could still have so much hope and faith. It is so easy to lose hope in the face of such adversity. They had all been working to rebuild their community. I was so glad that we could help the community in whatever way we could. What could seem like so little to us could mean so much to the people we were helping. It was also amazing to realize how many people were willing to help and how far they were willing to come from.
What sobriety arises when we are confronted with the mystery of suffering, death and evil! Yet this sobering recollection, which draws the soul inward to reflection, is salutary, fruitful. Holiness comes through suffering, because in order to love our hearts must be torn open. They are so closed, so attached to comfort, so unable to embrace the identity of others in all their sufferings and joys. Being faced with the rubble and destruction, and especially with the names of those who died, is an opportunity, a call, to allow our hearts to be torn open in solidarity, in compassion, in true charity, embracing both God, in all His Mystery, and all of His children.
To state things rather simply, there are three defining takeaways that I am happy to have received after my time serving in Joplin, Missouri. The first is the most obvious, and is perhaps shared by anyone who has heard of the catastrophe: the finite nature of our material possessions. Many of the people of Joplin lost everything that they had in a blink of an eye. This reminder of just how easily and quickly our belongings can be taken from us is something that we as human beings all too often neglect. Though what we have makes up a lot of who we are, it by no means ultimately defines us.
Thus, the second takeaway I have received is one that permeates the veins of the people of Joplin in a much more profound way than I can ever claim: hope. Many people were left with nothing more than their own person after the disaster, and many were not left even that. Despite all the devastation and death, the denizens of the city of Joplin are compelled to move forward, relying on the hope that their city can be rebuilt and that they can once again live a purposeful life.
This leads to my third takeaway, one that I feel most people in Joplin use to fuel their hope: the love of God and each other. Though, I must admit that to state that everyone who endured this trial is now lovingly positive and reassured in their future because of a belief in God and faith in human charity is an unfair generalization, for I'm sure some people have come out feeling quite the opposite. Nevertheless, those few that I had the fortune of encountering showed me just how appreciative they were toward the efforts of volunteers, and had even volunteered themselves. One of the greatest memories I cherish from the trip is the way that both the local Protestant and the Catholic communities welcomed our group. To many, this might be a simple thing because we are all Christians; but I believe there is something to be said about our faith in God bringing us all together, for we are all God's children, and we are all called to serve each other. I'm sure, that there are non-Christian communities in Joplin, and I imagine each of them have had similar encounters with those of other faiths. It is this love of God and love of each other that still abounds in the streets of Joplin today, granting them hope, defining who they are as a people - defining what we should all be as a people.