When Helping Others Stinks
How did you celebrate Labor Day weekend? Did you take advantage of the last few days of summer with a retreat to the beach? How about using the extra days for a much-needed getaway? Or did you simply relax by the pool and soak in the free time? Ah, that all sounds wonderful.
You know what I did for Labor Day weekend? I took time out of my busy schedule….to help others. Yea, that’s right. I drove over to Baton Rouge to give my time to the historic-Louisiana-flood victims. I deserve a pat on the back or a round of applause, don’t I?
Not exactly. Here’s the honest to God truth, friends: I was miserable.
Let me give you a little insight:
As most of you heard, south Louisiana was hit with one of the worst floods in history. No one knew it was coming. One day it started raining…and then the rain didn’t stop. After two days the water began to rise, and before anyone had a chance to realize what was happening, entire houses were under water. People were finding themselves waiting to be rescued from a boat. While they waited, they witnessed all their stuff slowly disappear into a black, wet, abyss of muddy water. I’m sure you’ve seen the pictures of terrified people wading through waist-deep water with belongings and pets in hand. I can’t imagine being there in the moment. It must’ve been utterly horrific.
I only live about an hour and fifteen minutes away from where all this took place. I kept a close eye through news outlets, while Taylor and I reassured each other how meaningless our material possessions are and how we should keep purging unnecessary things.
When my boss told us that we’d be canceling our beach trip with the students to go help out flood victims instead, I initially felt a sting of, “…really?” I mean, of course I cared about the flood victims, but I also cared about my long weekend…and getting to rest…and read…and write….and cook with my hubby and be comfortable and happy…and yea.
We couldn’t talk our way out of this one, so when Friday night rolled around we began our drive up to Baton Rouge. We knew better than to complain, but Frustration and Inconvenience sat in the backseat of the car reminding us that no matter how much we pretended they weren’t there, they came along for the ride. We got to the church where we’d be staying, only to find out that Taylor and I had to sleep in separate rooms which were specifically designated, one for MEN and one for WOMEN, “it just keeps getting worse,” we thought. After an uncomfortable night where Taylor’s air mattress deflated, and I had to sleep with every article of clothing I brought with me on from how cold the room was, we begrudgingly woke up to a 5:30am alarm and dragged our way to a cafeteria style breakfast.
An hour later we were at our first location: the home of a little old lady named Anne*. Anne had lived in a gorgeous house all by herself. It also had been three weeks since the flood and not one thing had been touched or removed in her home…I don’t particularly know why, but no action had been taken. So, three weeks later meant rotting wood and rotting food—complete with maggots and mold and a smell that literally caused my chest to burn. The site was atrocious—a nightmare. I felt like I had stepped foot in the sunken Titanic. Everything in the house looked eerie—like it was 100 years old. The odd thing was that only three weeks prior, everything had been perfectly livable. The mold and mud had rotten things to look like it had been sitting and aging for centuries. And the smell—oh, I can’t emphasize it enough.
Taylor and I picked a room in the far back—a spare room with a queen sized bed and a desk, which seemed to have once been an office. You could see the line of mold half way up the wall where the water had rested before it receded—about 5 feet high. There were bins that had originally held documents—some of importance, I’m sure—sitting at the bottom of the corner desk, still holding muddy floodwater with floating patches of thick grime. As we dug through the drawers we found photographs and letters, all smudged in purple and blue as if the original ink had never dried. Magazine pages were plastered to the floor so you can see the cover clearly as if it had purposely been laminated onto the wood. Cards that had been saved for decades had dried to feel like cardboard, still gripping the encrusted remains of what once was a heart-felt inscription.
We took heavy deep breaths into our face-masks, breathing from our mouths so not to take in that scent—yet, this didn’t seem to help much as you could taste the smell of rot in the back of your throat.
We began work around 7:30am, laboring well into the Louisiana heat. There wasn’t any air conditioning in the house, so it felt like an oven was baking a soufflé out of us. We broke apart large pieces of furniture and threw them out front by the side of the road. This was protocol for every gutted house, which meant that as you drove around Baton Rouge, all you saw were empty houses with mounds of once-personal-belongings-now-trash heaping on the front lawn. Dirty clothes, baby cribs, mattresses, and the like all decorated the streets. Driving around felt like you had stepped into the scene of the Apocalypse, adorned with spray painted messages reading, “YOU LOOT, WE SHOOT”. Even trying to escape into the air conditioning of your car to go for a drive was overwhelming.
Flies accumulated the entrance of the house, where maggots swarmed around like living grains of rice looking for somewhere to feed. Some of the volunteers tried to hose the area down while the rest of us hop-scotched across the stream of cold water. As the sun scorched hotter, the pile of trash mounded higher, and we grew more and more weary. Things that looked somewhat salvageable were taken to Anne, where she sat by the side entrance of her house as we all brought boxes of still-wet and still-stinking stuff. I couldn’t help but stare at her expression as her things were being brought to her by strangers in surgical face-masks and thick working gloves. What we couldn’t imagine touching with our bare hands, she grasped with care—wet clothes she had worn only a month prior, photographs that had sat in sewer water, glass figurines covered in mud that she had collected in her guest room. To us, it was junk inside of a rotting house; to her it was her life—decades of memories. Her face was low the whole time, her brows pinched together over her eyes, her forehead wrinkled. Her expression never changed. You know that face you put when your heart hangs heavy? You don’t even realize you’re making it, but you look uneased—worried, stressed, hurt—all at the same time. At one point I was carrying out pieces of a wooden desk which she had mistaken for her bedside table, “oh…is that…my…” she began, realizing in an instant that it didn’t matter—it was gone, anyway. She slowly surrendered to the reality that her life was to begin all over again. I can’t imagine experiencing that feeling after retirement, after your kids have their own families, after your husband has lived and died and you know your time is approaching.
4:30pm came around and it was time to head back for dinner and a shower. There was a layer of grime—and stink—attached to my skin, and I couldn’t wait to wash up. Thankfully, we were the first ones back, and I lathered up about four times in a portable shower that barely fit my body AND my toiletries. It was a shower, nonetheless.
The following day was the same agenda—except, thankfully, the houses we busied had already been gutted so we didn’t have maggots or mold or rotting wood to deal with. Most of the work, however, was outside. It was my second day laboring, my second night without sleeping with my hubby. It was the second day of heat and humidity and lots of people around me feeling dirty and grumpy and tired, too. Needless to say, I was over it—I think we were all over it. I found myself getting agitated pretty easily. I was told that Tay and I would be in charge of relaying instructions to the team, but when they didn’t listen (too many chiefs and not enough Indians), I internally-eye-rolled and hid away in another room looking for something else to do. I snapped at my sweet hubby a few times solely because of the fact that I felt perpetually uncomfortable—the way a woman in labor does when her loving husband whispers words of encouragement in her ear and she responds with an agitated, “NOT RIGHT NOW, BABE.” The bottom line, folks: my attitude down right stank—almost as bad as the rotten-maggot-infested house.
Sunday night finally came and Taylor and I headed out early to get home in time to eat and shower and relax before bed. On the drive home, we chatted about the weekend and the fact that we were glad it was over. As we reflected on the shock of the devastation, we couldn’t help but go back to the expression on Anne’s face. We found ourselves repeating to each other the emotions we felt—what we noticed she felt. We talked about the last moment we saw her—how we all surrounded her and prayed for her, and how she reassured us—through her shaky voice—how eternally grateful she was for our help. She affirmed that despite the hurt, she rested in the reality that her treasures weren’t here on Earth, but in heaven—where moths and rust do not destroy (Matthew 6:20).
The darker the sky became as it raced passed us, the deeper we reflected, and consequently, the softer our hearts grew. Gratitude swelled up within us. But as the gratitude bloated up, so did the conviction. You see, as the Church, we are tasked with the privilege of caring for the oppressed and denying ourselves for the sake of others. We are also called to be a patient, a kind, a loving, and a sacrificial folk. Prior to my weekend in Baton Rouge, I thought I was doing pretty well in all those areas. But you see friends, I realized that it ain’t that hard to be loving and patient and kind when the temperature is right and the coffee is brewing and there aren’t any maggots or rotten smells harassing me. Our character is truly tested when it’s hard to be kind and patient and loving—when the flies are swarming and the sweat is accumulating around your face-mask and your leggings are damp around your thighs from humidity and mold.
I guess this is why Jesus was pretty cut and dry when he told us to do unto others as we wish that they’d do to us. If we love those who love us, what benefit is that to us? Even evil people love those who love them. Or if we do good only to those who do good to us, where’s the love in that? Because yea, evil people do the same. How about if we give expecting to receive? What good is that? The evil lend to the evil expecting back the same amount. “Love your enemies,” he says, “do good and lend, expecting nothing in return.” (Luke 6:32-35, paraphrase mine).
Now, I wouldn’t call Anne, or any of the other families I helped out my enemies, but sheesh, if loving on these people is that inconvenient for me, then I must be way more far off than I thought I was.
And just like that folks, I got gut-checked by God. Cheesy, I know. But oh… so true. He reminded me this weekend that no, I’m not that great and yes, I have so much learning and growing and sacrificing to do. I was also reminded that love really counts the most when it's really hard to do. And while I can get all down on myself for missing it this weekend, I know that won’t help the situation. Instead, I can thank my sweet Savior for being ever so patient and kind and loving with me when I least deserve it. After all, it really is His kindness that leads to repentance.
Dear friends, when was the last time you checked your heart? When was the last time Inconvenience reared its ugly head and your selfishness was exposed? While it’s a crappy realization, it’s also a really healthy one. Allow yourself the joy of a gut-check that leads to repentance and renewal…and get back to running that race harder than you ever ran before…
*Anne wasn’t the sweet old lady’s real name. I changed it for the sake of respecting her in this post.