10 year have gone by since Hurricane Katrina ravaged the Gulf Coast. 9 1/2 years ago I made my first trek to Pearlington, Mississippi with a group of 20 teenagers and adults, ready to do whatever we were asked to do to help with the clean-up and recovery work. We never expected to feel so tied to that community that we would go back, twice a year, for the next 6 years. It just happened.
Mississippi changed me. I found a part of myself there I wasn't aware existed. I learned some hard lessons on those trips, and did a lot of growing up...A LOT. I KNOW the grace of God. Not just because of my experience with God's grace but because of the stories of those with whom we came into contact. On that very first trip, one of the women at the First Missionary Baptist Church of Pearlington told our group "I'm so grateful for this storm! If it hadn't happened I wouldn't have gotten to meet all of you!" As I drove through town that week, as I pulled moldy sheet rock off the inside walls of the 2nd story of a house, as I heard the stories of the team each night, and slept on Army cots in a corrugated plastic pod, I couldn't really fathom being grateful for the storm. It had done so much damage and taken so much away.
And yet...and yet all these years later I can say I am grateful for the storm. I am grateful for the opportunities we had to make a difference. To help others. To make new friends. To be light in the darkness. To look into the eyes of a stranger and know that we had helped to bring hope, laughter, goodness back into their lives in whatever small way we could.
It's been three years since I've been back to Mississippi. Thankfully, there hasn't been a hurricane in that time frame. I would go back in a heartbeat, though, if there was or if Mr. Ben called and said "I need help." I would be on a plane as fast as possible.
There's a Mississippi state sign, on the edge of town that reads "Mississippi - It's like coming home". I'm not sure why - my liberal, California woman beliefs definitely have a hard time meshing with the conservative Mississippi culture - but that sign felt true. Every time we drove across the state line it felt like I was going home. I miss it.
I want to go back. I'm ready to rent a camp on the Bayou and sit in the humid breeze listening to the insects buzz. To go with Mr. Ben and Miss Sue up the road to get the best fried chicken ever made by the man who will serenade you as it cooks. I'm ready to drive through the neighborhoods and see the changes made. To sit on the porch at the Pretty House and watch the neighbors drive by, listening for the dogs at Mr. Sam's. I want to go to the Turtle and eat Fried Shrimp po'boys while watching for the alligator. I'm ready to go back and wander through the shops in Bay St. Louis and have coffee at the Mockingbird Cafe. To drive along the coastline, to walk on the beach and put my toes in the water of the Gulf. I'm ready to go back and watch for armadillos as we drive along the road (though, the armadillos might not want me to go back, I only see dead ones). To burn my mouth on the hottest (spiciest?) corn on the cob ever while trying desperately not to think about the yellow stuff that comes out of the head of the crawfish as I chow down.
Hurricane Katrina changed the Gulf Coast. For many there wasn't anything to be grateful for about that storm. I won't disagree. Hurricane Katrina changed me and for that I am eternally grateful.