Wabash Blogs Immersion 2009: New Orleans Mission Trip

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We have returned from a tremendous, enriching week in New Orleans. Altogether we had 30 Wabash students, three faculty, and eight members of First Christian Church in Crawfordsville. The 41 of us stayed at Westside Mission, led by the truly inspiring Rev. Vance Moore. Brother Vance believes he is called by God to help rebuild lives and hope in New Orleans by reconstructing the homes of displaced residents, free of charge. With supplies purchased through donations and thousands of volunteers from around the country over the past few years, Brother Vance and Westside have rebuilt numerous homes in what remains a devastated city.
 We worked on four homes in the Lower Ninth Ward, and we had the great satisfaction of bringing one of them to completion and helping its owners, Pastor and Sister Washington, move in. Pastor Washington is the 81-year-old minister of a Baptist church a couple blocks from his home. Through his hard work, his church reopened some time ago, but thanks to Westside he and his wife now have their home back as well. Several of our men completed the Washington home by finishing the electrical work, putting in sinks, finalizing the plumbing, and so forth. The other homes we worked on were in various stages of repair or building, and other volunteer groups will take over where we left off. Among much else, I was grateful for the opportunity to visit the owners of the three homes we worked on last year, all well established in their newly rebuilt homes, along with David Swann ’09 and Eric Griffin ’10, who also participated in last year’s spring break trip. 
Thank you to Dean Rick Warner and Prof. Dave Maharry for their participation and leadership on the trip. Thanks also to Rev. Keith Strain, Dave Lunsford, and the other outstanding men from First Christian, whose building expertise and patient instruction made it possible for those of us without skills to make tangible contributions. Most of all, thank you to the students who chose to give of themselves to strangers in a city far from home, foregoing the usual spring break inducements to rest, relaxation, and partying to rise early and work hard, learning much in the process about suffering, hardship, grace, and love. I am immensely proud of these young men, who represent the very best of Wabash College, and I thank God for each of them. Thanks to Bobby Wade ’11 and Chad Simpson ’10 for serving as our official blogger and photographer, respectively. Finally, for all of you who made a financial contribution to support the student participants and for those who supported us with your prayers, thank you.
I urge you to read the thoughtful, engaging blog entries below from students and faculty. They will give you a great sense of what we saw, experienced, built, and discovered in the course of our week in New Orleans. In addition, I encourage you to visit a photo montage compiled by Jeff Kessels ’10, mainly using pictures taken by Chad Simpson, which offers a good impression of the current state of the Lower Ninth Ward: http://persweb.wabash.edu/student/kesselsj/Spring%20Break%202009.wmv. Enormous need remains in New Orleans, but there is reason for hope and gratitude in the wake of tragedy.  
Jon Baer
These are the journal entries of one William B. Finney. The following is a true account of what happened and the story of the men who were there….
Day 1:
They captured us early this morning. They have placed us in several vans and we are driving. I have managed to sneak a small pencil and some scraps of food wrappers to write on. We have been driving south for ten hours and they say that we will be on the road for another five hours. I have no idea what is in store for us, but I fear the worst.
Day 2:
It appears that the head captor goes by the name of Brother Vance. He woke us up at six thirty this morning to go to work. I have begun planning our escape but he keeps us in four separate work camps. The organization of this “mission” is impressive and I have a suspicion that some of the faculty that they captured with us are actually conspirators. Several other upperclassmen and I have formed an underground resistance that goes by the pseudonym “Du-Rags and Daiquiris”. We managed to acquire van keys and make our escape in the dead of night. We stopped at a local food establishment that serves daiquiris and plays hard-core rap music. We decided that if we were to leave now then the others would surely be terminated. We will stay; we will fight; we will win…
Day 3:
The men leading each work camp seem like reasonable people. They are knowledgeable and helpful and sometimes it is hard to remember that underneath their smiles and genial demeanor are our captors. I fear that many of my fellow Wabash men are suffering from Stockholm’s syndrome and have begun to refer to Jacko and Carter as friends and role models. Du-Rags and Daiquiris will be the last vestige of hope for us all. We will have a meeting tomorrow night. We will have to wait until after our mandatory evening meetings. Brother Vance leads us in a discussion of the day’s activities.
Day 4:
I lost my composure today. I got in one of the vans and tried to make a run for it. The security at the job sites was better then I anticipated and somehow our captors were able to stop the van and break one of its windows. I was not reprimanded because, as a team leader, my presence was essential to the morale of the men. I know that I will be closely watched, though. (I really did accidentally break one of the Wabash rental van windows and felt really bad. The roads down there are terrible with debris everywhere. There was a fire hydrant that was leaking many gallons of water and had been since the storm. It is obvious that the government has forgotten this area.)
Day 5:
I realized today that we are probably not going to make it out. We finished the work site for Pastor Washington today and serious progress is being accomplished at all the other sites. I personally wired electricity and ran plumbing. The other sites are repairing floors and roofs, and one group is building a house from scratch. I fear the worst for when we are finally finished here. This feeling was reinforced by the fact that they allowed us one last evening of fun and debauchery in the French quarter. I hope the fact that you are reading this right now means that this journal has found its way out and our story is told.
Day 6:
I have reason to believe that today was our last day of labor. We finished working earlier then normal and cleaned all of the work sites. We were allowed what I believe to be our last meal today at a place called Rocky and Carlo’s. We cleaned our quarters tonight and are going to bed early. I do not know what tomorrow holds, but there will be no sleep tonight. I am at peace with my fate. (Seriously, though, there was so much food. It was really delicious and we all owe a big shout out to Westside Mission, the guys from First Christian Church, and the faculty that came with us. We have been eating really well and been really well taken care of.)
Day 7:
This will be my last entry. They say we are driving home and only I know better. I only hope that the brave Wabash men who are with me and I will be remembered through these writings. I have chosen not to inform any of the others as to their fate. They are blissfully ignorant and believe they will be home in several hours. I am eternally grateful for their companionship through this ordeal. This is the last hamburger wrapper and I know there are no more to come. I am at peace. Goodbye cruel beauty that we call………{Writing ends here and experts believe that Mr. Finney was discovered and prevented from finishing his writing. The debate still continues as to what his last words were going to be, but I am of the opinion that he was going to write “SPRING BREAK ’09!!!”}
(All kidding aside, this was a really great experience and I truly feel that we were able to help real people in real need. It is not every day that a person is afforded this kind of an opportunity. I found this trip to be more centering and relaxing then any beach or lazy days back at the house. I guess now it is time to go back to the grind, but I feel refueled and reinvigorated with what it means to be a Wabash Man and more importantly a human being.)

William Finney 

So much of every day here in New Orleans was spent doing the minutest tasks. Some might even go so far as to call them insignificant. I honestly cannot call to mind every different action that I did on this trip and all of the skills that I sort-of learned. Whether I was hammering a nail, pulling a bent nail out, rehammering a different nail in that same spot, measuring wood, cutting wood, remeasuring the wood because we messed up the first time, or whatever, I learned a great deal of small skills that before this week were completely foreign to a privileged college kid like me. I think the most important thing I need to do in this blog is thank my site director, Rick Jacko. The man’s knowledge of all things construction-related is truly astounding. So thanks Jacko.

 So back to the issue of minute tasks. This phenomenon completely astounded me throughout the week. Take hammering a nail for instance. This is not an easy project for an amateur, and the forty or so amateurs on this trip can attest to that. What amazed me about such a simple action was its power to consume my thoughts. When I was staring down a nail like a matador preparing to fight a bull, all I could think of were the nail, my hammer, and the pieces of wood, o ya and my fingers. But it was incredible. During the minute or so in the beginning of the week and the ten seconds towards the end that it took to get that nail in the wood, everything else fell from my mind.
This was a very refreshing experience for me, because I often worry very much about the day-to-day things about school and everything that comes along with it. But when that first hammer stroke made contact with the nail, I was pulled from those worries into just that moment, focused on each successive stroke and on attaining my goal of pushing the nail into the wood.
Such an experience was truly awesome and uplifting, but something else amazed me even more. For those of you who read this blog who have not been to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, you truly cannot comprehend the devastation. While I have been here, I have heard many attempts at explaining this disaster. Some people call it a war zone and others compare it to a third world country, but I think that both of these qualifications fall short of accurately placing the events of Hurricane Katrina. See, a war zone is devastated, because a battles are being fought without regard for land or human; and third world countries are as they are because of lack of development or corruption or famine or poverty. What amazes me is that this said “war zone” or “third world country” we have been working in for the past week, is in the United States of America. Wars are not being fought within our country and we are far from third world, and yet the sights in New Orleans compare easily to these other catastrophes. Why?
Well I do not think I can answer that question here, but I want to explain why hammering a nail amazes me. As we drove to our respective sites, we would see just utter destruction and we truly cannot be untouched. When we would finish our journey to the site and get to work, however, it all went away. Each time my hammer fell on the nail-head the sad state around me was pushed further and further away. I think something important can be taken from this, because just like the goal of getting a nail into a piece of wood, much of this city needs to be rebuilt. And just like hammering a nail one stroke at a time, this city needs to be rebuilt one stroke, one nail, one frame, one wall, one house, one city-block at a time. So within the greater mission of aiding the numerous wounded people of New Orleans, the most minute tasks become vitally important.
Bob Cassidy
 “Where did you see God today?” That’s the question Brother Vance, the founder of Westside Mission, poses to 33 Wabash Men each night after a hard day’s work. It’s a question that we rarely take the time to ask ourselves in our busy lives as students, but its one you can’t help but ask here. Everywhere we are surrounded by the devastation left in Katrina’s wake.  People have been displaced, homes destroyed, and lives lost. However, despite this, God is everywhere in New Orleans. 
Each night we go to sleep in wooden bunks with the names of previous volunteers etched into them. It is an inspiring realization to understand that Wabash College is a part of a greater effort to help our fellow man. The feeling of community here is unsurpassed. And that notion goes far beyond the borders of Louisiana.   Names reach from Kentucky, Mississippi, Connecticut, Illinois, Indiana, and many more. Being here, we know that we are in the midst of something larger and more extraordinary than any one individual can comprehend. The rebuilding of New Orleans has transcended borders of state, nation, race, gender, and even religion. This is a mission that has bonded us all to one another; it’s clear that God is everywhere.
Steve Stambaugh ‘09
What a wonderful week! As one can gather from the blog entries, we have met some amazing people this week, such as Pastor Washington and his wife, who have persevered at the center of the slow rebirth of the Lower Ninth Ward. Yet to my mind I have also been struck by the amazing spirit of the Wabash men with whom I have travelled and pounded nails all week. Is it not impressive that such a large chunk of our student body has chosen to forgo the traditional frivolity of spring break in favor of helping improve the lives of others?
As you can tell from other entries, we have worked together as a group, developing friendships and trust. I have always noted these connections that develop between students from different living units, and across class and ethnic lines. The sublime nature of these connections was captured by a comment from Marcus Manges, who noted the irony that we have had to travel so far to become so close. This trip more than any other has taught me the value of these developing relationships, as they have proceeded on a personal, even spiritual level. For this reason I owe a debt of gratitude to my colleague Jon Baer for organizing this venture. Faculty members have learned as much as students on this adventure.
Dean Warner
This simple phrase is the best way to describe my trip to New Orleans over spring break. Every day after a long days work, that I am sure you have heard about in other posts, Brother Vance would ask us one simple question “Where did you see God today?” This question brought up some of the most interesting, funniest, and inspiring answers I would hear all week. During every answer session someone would be thanked and remarked how they saw God in someone else. This list would include, but would certainly not be limited to Jacko, Brother Vance, Dr. Baer, Pastor Washington, Dean Warner, several Westside Church members, several more First Christian Church members, and all the Wabash guys.       
The ways people would see God ranged in all sorts of ways. These included seeing God in the beautiful weather we had, seeing God in the amazing food we were served especially from the Westside Church members who made us one of the most delicious meals I have ever ate on Wednesday night. People saw God in how Dr. Baer organized this amazing trip that has changed all of us for the better. People saw God in Brother Vance for allowing us to stay at the West Side Mission and for his amazing spirit. People saw God in how patient the First Christian Church members were in helping teaching us how to build walls, ceilings, tiling roofs, etc. I especially want to thank Jacko who was our group leader and was amazing wealth of knowledge and one of the nicest men I have ever met. People also saw God in Dean Warner and Professor Maharry who gave up their spring breaks to come down with us Wabash men. These two amazing men truly showed God all week in their loving attitude and spirit and always made us smile. People saw God in Pastor Washington who was one of the most awe-inspiring men I have ever met. This 81-year-old man could lift cinder blocks and build a wall faster and more accurate then I would ever have a chance at.
People also saw God in us Wabash men who gave up our spring break to come down and help greatly needy and deserving people to rebuild their homes and buildings. The people down here were so nice to us and appreciated our volunteer work greater than anyone else I have met before. For example random people would come up to us and thank us for the work we were doing down here and pray for us. When we were in an art gallery in the French Quarter, on Thursday night, the man in charge of the art gallery played four songs on his guitar for us to thank us for being down there volunteering. I believe, to be perfectly honest, that they should not be the one thanking me but it should be me thanking them and the people who allowed me to have this experience. This experience has made me a far richer person than if I would not have gone on it, and taught me several life long lessons. 
I would love to come back to New Orleans and help rebuild it for they have a real need and deserve it. People tend to forget that New Orleans has not been cleaned up completely yet and how many people are still hurting from the results of hurricane Katrina. So as I am ending my post I would love to thank all the people mentioned up above immensely for this experience, as well as thanks to all my Wabash brothers who were on the trip, many of whom I have built friendships with whom I did not know before. I would finally like to thank God, and thanks for a question that I think is the best way to end anyone’s day. WHERE DID YOU SEE GOD TODAY?
Stevan Stankovich
As I am sure many other bloggers are writing my New Orleans experience has too been a great one. The past two spring breaks I have gone on immersion programs through the school which I believe have served to make my Wabash experience much more enriched.  It is through things like this that I realize Wabash is much more than just a place people take classes at but is actually an institution where young men learn to live humanely. There have been minor set-backs here and there during our work but I think we have ended the week accomplishing a lot and each of the participants maturing. I would recommend this experience to anyone else and I am considering coming back next spring break.   
Craig Cochran
We arrived here 5 days ago when the spring break started. Before I came here, I had already heard a lot about Katrina and the damage it caused. However, I still got shocked when we drove through the area that suffered most from that catastrophe. From there, I saw the very first beggar since I came to America. He had a board hanging around his neck, which said “help”, so helpless and hopeless. Houses without roofs or with only half roofs stood everywhere, waiting there to be fixed. Three and half years after the nightmare, it seems that people have forgotten this place. So little has been done and so much still has to be done.
On my first day here, everything was just so frustrating that I even thought there was not much we could do about this mess. However, today, five days after we got here, when I look at this place again, I feel completely different. After witnessing those Wabash men working as hard as they could, after seeing how optimistic Pastor Washington was and after experiencing how patient, passionate and lovely the volunteers -- Lyle, Carter and Rick-- could be, I would say this place is not dead at all! Quite to the opposite, this place now seems very lively to me. Not because of its appearance but because of the spirit that is flowing around, a spirit that could never be destroyed by disaster or anything. That is the spirit of love. Love changes things -- I guess that’s the most valuable thing I learned from this trip.
Mike Lu
We enjoyed a productive fourth day of our mission work in New Orleans. Our group has been framing a new house and today we finished putting up all the ceiling joists. I consider it a major accomplishment of the week because there are so many joists and they are so heavy that it looked like a mission impossible at the first. However, at the end of the day, they were all hammered firmly on top of the house. It was amazing to see how much we can achieve as a group. And as one of our members said, everything we do in school is very abstract, like taking a test or writing a paper, but what we are doing down here is something totally different – you can touch the result of your work. I heard our team members shouting “Yes! We just built a wall! Men, hammer, and a wall!”
On this mission trip, I’m exploring lots of things that I have never experienced before in my life. Besides all the construction skills I have learned from this week’s work, I have to mention the chapel time we had with Brother Vance every evening. He kept asking the question “Where did you see God today?” everyday. Though I’m a non-religious person, I found it highly touching to see how sincere and thankful everybody is to share their wonderful stories of the day. No matter who we are and what we believe in, we share the beautiful side of mankind.
By the way, we had a fantastic time at the French Quarter last night. And that’s why I’m blogging today instead of yesterday.
Yijun Tang ‘12
As the week draws to a close, it is neat to see how much progress our group has made. Our house now has an actual floor (though I cannot attest that it is perfectly level); we’ve replaced the main supporting wall; and we’ve re-shingled the roof (Actually, I personally did not help with the re-shingling. I tried, but the steep pitch of the roof was too much for my nerves!).
Our group really hit a rhythm today. Since most of us are not carpenters, it took several days to figure out what to do without consulting our group leader.  Today, everyone knew the routine, and we were working almost non-stop. We even took a shorter lunch break than normal, knowing that this was our last chance to work on the house.
This has been an excellent experience for me. I am very grateful for the people that I have met—be they classmates, members of First Christian Church, or people of New Orleans—and for the chance to help a hurting region.
Zachary Rohrbach ‘12
This week has been, in a word, inspiring. God has really shown his love and his purpose through this trip. There are still a lot of people who are still hurting and needing help in New Orleans. It is interesting, though. They are not the kind of people to accept pity. One man in particular, Pastor Washington, seems to view the aftermath of the hurricane as another trial in his long life—he’s still chugging away at 81! Every morning, we began with a prayer. When praying, he always said to the Lord, “You so good, and you so kind,” despite all that he has been through! He is just one of the many people who have shown how to truly live the Christian life.
I have to make mention of a few friends that I have made during this trip. There were five Asian students who accompanied us on this trip. Not being of the Christian faith, they did not come to demonstrate God’s love, nor did they come to help their fellow countrymen; rather, they came out of the goodness of their hearts to help their fellow man. I have to say that they have been truly inspiring, and in my eyes, God has used them to show me what it truly means to love my fellow man. I had the blessing of working with two guys in particular, How and Yjun (spelling may be way off). For starters, they didn’t understand why we were using wood to build our houses; bricks and stone are the material of choice in China. Second, they came with very little carpentry skills—not that I had too many either. Despite their lack of experience, they were incredibly eager to help out. They would walk around the house looking for nails to hammer or any other way to help out. They are true Wabash men, and I sincerely appreciate all that they did this week.
Unfortunately, this is the last night here. We will not wake up at 6:30 in anticipation of another eight-hour day in the beautiful Big Easy sun, and we won’t be rebuilding the town of New Orleans. Fortunately, we will be waking with a burden on our hearts: to spread our testimonies of our time here. To anyone who is reading this, this city needs your prayers and your help, in any way you can give it. Please don’t forget this town and its people.
Austin Drake ‘11
“Where have you seen God Today?” This question is posed to us each night by Brother Vance as he looks at us with his little grin. We know the question is coming and in my case I have been thinking of it all day and looking for instances in which God reveals himself to us. It’s amazing to me that although we are doing the same work each day we always come up with new ways in which God has been revealed that day, which prompts many excellent discussions to wrap up the evening.
I shared this with the group but I would also like to share it with anyone who wants to read. I have seen God this week in many instances. First and foremost through Brother Vance and Pastor Washington, whose spirits cannot be dampened. Each hardship is just another opportunity and although the people of New Orleans, especially the lower ninth ward where we worked, have dealt with some extreme hardships their attitudes are wonderful and gracious. We have met some excellent people down here and I have seen God through them.
I have also seen God in our leadership from First Christian Church in Crawfordsville, especially Dr. Baer and the man known only as Carter. Dr. Baer organized everything for us and his passion for these people simply gushes out of him. Then we have our site leader Carter who has become a bit of a legend for the 12 or so guys building the house with him. He was very patient with us even though we had very little experience and made tons of mistakes. He always was willing to help and I am very proud to have worked with him. One can see Jesus not only through his attitude but also because of his profession as a builder; Christ after all, was first a carpenter.
Finally I have seen God through the men of Wabash and what we have accomplished here. To have 30 students of roughly 900 willing to give up their spring break to come and serve the people here is pretty amazing. I for one wouldn’t have it any other way and I know the guys here feel the same way.   We have all become much closer through the trip as well and I have seen God working through the relationships built with my fellow Wallies as we all work together to serve him.
This experience has been wonderful and I can’t wait for the chance to come back next year. Where have you seen God today?
Marcus Manges ‘10