The December after Hurricane Katrina, I went down to Mississippi
to volunteer, mostly by filling in for a Methodist pastor whose home had been
flooded. It seemed like a great idea at the time; I really wanted to go to the Gulf
Coast, but I have very few
practical skills in the area of demolition or rebuilding. When a blogging
friend asked for preachers to come and give a break to her colleagues who were
in distress, I thought that might be something I could do. I had the
opportunity, thanks to Small Church,
to take ten days for the mission trip. This gave her two Sundays off in a row,
a huge gift of time for a preacher.
But shortly after I offered to go, I began to worry. I
looked ahead to see what texts I would be preaching, and they offered little
comfort. Instead they contained references to God in the mighty waters of a
storm (Psalm 29) or the water coming over Jesus’ head as he was baptized.
“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was
baptized by John in the Jordan.
And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart
and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.” (Mark 1:9-10, NRSV)
What made me think I had anything to say to people whose
lives had been quite literally covered by the storm surge? I began to think I
should be sending a plumber instead.
In the end, I realized that if I truly believed the Holy
Spirit had nudged me to go to Mississippi,
I ought to trust that the same Spirit would be with me when it came time to
preach on those Sunday mornings in January. The first was New Year’s Day, 2006, and I
remember having a sense that although the weather seemed bleak, hope could be
found in the community of that Methodist church. The pews in the back third of
the sanctuary were filled with donated food and clothes; a teacher arrived
early to teach Sunday School on New Year’s Day, which amazed me; and the people
came eagerly to worship, to sing and pray and give thanks to God.
I’m not sure I had anything brilliant to say that day, but
people definitely noticed the way I said it. As one older gentleman put it, my
Maine-with-notes-of-Virginia accent made for “an unusual patois.”
And that’s the dialect of faith, isn’t it? We speak an
unusual patois of fear and hope, of death and life, of disconnection and
reconciliation. I’ll be in Mississippi
again, on my fifth annual trip, from January 1 to 6, and I promise to bring
back stories to share with you. The people who hear them in person will no doubt chuckle to hear my languorous vowel sounds.