The week before Thanksgiving, my husband and I were invited by the Mississippi Chamber of Commerce to the Biloxi-Gulfport area. Ed was asked to come down there to interview residents, and write about the progress the wonderful people of that area have made after Katrina, and the recent oil spill in the Gulf. They graciously invited me to come along.
During our visit, Ed and I were taken out on a tour boat on the Gulf to learn about shrimping. I loved listening to the commercial shrimpers explain what they were doing. With the warm sun on our faces, and listening to them pull in the nets, so full of shrimp and other fish that attracted the seagulls, it all felt a little biblical: nets lifting out of water; back-breaking work; and a daily encounter with uncontrollable nature. It was ordinary, hard-working, local businessmen whom Jesus sought out as his ministry flourished and his church was being formed, people who knew the feel of sea spray on the face and the cry of hungry gulls overhead. Fishermen would instinctively understand that casting out into the deep would be dangerous, rewarding, and difficult work.
The water of the Gulf was so calm, but I couldn’t help but think about all the flooding and destruction that it brought about on the people of the Gulf only a few years ago during Katrina, and that felt biblical, too: some communities prepared for possible flooding, some did not. Those who prepared, as they did in Gulfport, fared better. They worked hard, too, when the waters subsided, and the strength, courage, and caring of the people in Biloxi/Gulfport was impressive. Without fail, everyone we met was positive and looking forward, not dwelling on the past.
They reminded me of the passage in 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear, but of courage, love, and self discipline.” Yes, the scars are still there, but they have replaced and rebuilt even using the trees that were destroyed to carve sculptures of birds out of the remaining trunks.
One evening we were all taken to an awesome dinner at Mary Mahoney’s. The food and hospitality was wonderful -- and yes, the seafood of this area has been tested many times and has been found very safe. My personal and extensive research found it quite delicious!
There was one story in particular I heard that stood out to me about the strength and goodness of these people. A gentleman named William Richardson Jr. shared about how, shortly after Katrina, the needs of the homeless were addressed by Mississippi Cares International (MCI), which organized the purchase and rebuilding of an apartment building in order to give the homeless a new beginning.
MCI is a non-profit group; it raised money and used volunteers to provide shelter for the many people made homeless especially after Katrina -- a “from street to home project” called Oregon Place Apartments.
MCI was founded by Ellen Ratner and Cholene Espinoza within weeks of Katrina; the people who participated on this project worked very quietly, and without much public notice. They saw the need, and with many helping hands made it possible for the homeless to have a place to live, and a way to move from the woods to the indoors -- from dire straits to dignity with self-respect. Oregon Place is a 55-unit apartment complex of fourteen four-plex units of two bedrooms and an onsite laundry. The spacious 3.2-acre site has a stand of mature oaks and a playground for the children.
There are only a few simple requirements to live in Oregon Place: there cannot be a warrant outstanding for one’s arrest; no drugs or alcohol can be used on site, or by the residents; job/skill training is required under a self- improvement plan developed by case workers; and the residents are helped with social, health, and educational needs. A tenant organization oversees the daily activities and safety of the residents. People have been given a helping hand, and a chance to help themselves. Eventually, perhaps, they will be able to extend help to others, themselves.
As we enter Advent, it is a time for waiting, hope, and preparing ourselves for the coming of the Lord in His Nativity at Christmas, as well as for His second coming. It is a time to think about hope, and our day-to-day relationship with the Lord, not only during Christmas, but for our whole future. We display lights in our windows and we wait.
In this MCI story, we see people inviting grace into their lives. Through their own generosity and intentions, they display their own internal lights, and in that way share a part of the mystery of Incarnation. They “prepared a place” for others, and in doing so prepared a place for Christ: “Whatsoever you do to the least of my brethren, that you do unto me” (Mt. 25:40).
Advent is not really just a season. It is a whole way.
The homeless people of Oregon Place have traveled that way, from waiting, to hope and a future.Others helped them get there; that help was a gift that will last for these people long past Christmas, and well into their future. It is all a little like the shrimpers and the seagulls, whose search for food goes a little easier around the boats and just-pulled nets, or like innkeepers with a handy spare stable.
With all the Christmas gift buying, and commercial craziness of this time of year it is truly a wonderful thing to think about how cooperative the world is meant to be, and how naturally cooperation occurs. The Holy Family was displaced, and homeless when they arrived in Bethlehem; the world cooperated. Let us prepare a place for Him in this Advent season in our hearts as we await His coming!