Meridian, MS

I wrote this last Tuesday night…

The need is so great. There’s really no other way to put it. Meridian, Miss., one of the poorest cities in the poorest state in the country, has need heaped on top of need, compounded by even more need. One can’t see the end with an amateur telescope, let alone with squinted eyes.

Hurricane Katrina was only a Category 1 hurricane when it plowed through Meridian in late August. The devastation experienced by Biloxi, Gulfport, Pass Christian and of course media-baby New Orleans was and still is far worse. But the need of Meridian is still so great. And people just now seem to be getting a handle on it.

Our group traveled by 10-passenger van-and-trailer to Meridian in early February, nearly six months after the storms. With the coming of Mardi Gras, rebuilding efforts in New Orleans are getting some attention, but for the most part, Mississippi and its residence have faded back into the oblivion of their pre-Katrina days.

One would assume that after five months, things would be back on track for a town three hours north of ground zero. That’s certainly the understanding I brought with me. For sure, I knew I would be working on something; that’s why I came. But I never thought that two days into my stay I would be realizing that I could stay for six months. Heck, one thousand of me could stay for six months. Then, maybe then, there would be a handle on the situation. The need is so great.

Rebuild East Mississippi is an organization recently created to help advance the efforts. One of the members of our group helped at their office the past couple days. Her job has been to process assistance claims by citizens of the four-county area surrounding Meridian. A typical claim would be: elderly couple unable to do yard work needs fallen trees cut up and hauled away; or: disabled citizen needs roof tarped or shingled; or: a perfectly healthy resident needs a looming limb cut down before the next strong wind knocks it through their second floor. They’d do it if they had the equipment–or they’d hire someone if they had the money.

These claims are just now being processed. And if we weren’t down here volunteering and actually processing them ourselves, who knows when they’d be processed? “The land of the free and the home of the brave?” I doubt many Meridian residence where singing along to that line before the Super Bowl.

The thing that just boggles my mind is that this is the state of affairs in Meridian five months after the storms. Five months. And as stated before, this is a town three hours north of the real bad situations along the coast.

From my limited exposure, I can only conclude that I’ve experienced a microcosm of the need… and I’m already overwhelmed. Or maybe that’s the fact that overwhelms me… knowing there is so much more to be done. Maybe Meridian isn’t the median situation of southern Mississippi. Maybe the town’s residents are suffering more because their homes were already rickety and were pushed over the edge by Katrina. Maybe the help response has been slower because money talks and the citizens of Meridian have nonelittle to offer. I don’t know. I just know the need is so great.

How is it that almost a half year after the hurricanes struck, people still need their roof tarped? You’re telling me rain has had access into these homes for over 150 days?

A neighbor to the home we’re working on stopped by Monday and offered to use his cherry-picker to cut down a dangerous limb far beyond the reach of our chain-saw crew. We were grateful, for sure. Our guys sorta paid-it-forward and asked our work organizer if they could cut up the large fallen tree in the back yard of the lady next door. The lady teared the minute the question was asked… and the minute our guys showed up the next day… and the minute the job was over. That’s how great the need is.

But why are situations like this just now being addressed? Why is it OK that people are on pins and needles when a big breeze blows and the cracked tree limb shakes? Why is it OK that when the rain falls, the attic is soaked and the ceiling leeks? Why is it OK?

It’s OK because I have bills of my own that demand my attention… and I have a job to do and pictures to take and Web sites to build and obligations to fulfill. I do have a living to make, you know. I only get two weeks of vacation each year and I sure as heck won’t give it all up to help some people out because I deserve some time off to enjoy myself and recharge. I’ve earned it by working 40-hours a week, clicking a mouse and punching letters, making two or three times as much money as most Meridian homeowners.

And these people have it good compared to the inner-city homeless, the poverty-stricken of Appalachia and the starving in Africa, Mexico, India and countless other countries of the world. Sadly, we’re OK with it–even though the need is so great.

We’re not OK with it in our mind. We wrestle with it from time to time–when Bono gets us fired up about The One Campaign or when some Compassion International commercial comes on the TV or when Jim Wallis writes about it in Sojourners magazine or when we avoid some homeless people on the way to the Lions game or Sacks Fifth Avenue or the Chicago Cheesecake Factory. We think about it and we’re not OK with it.

But what separates a person like Jesus apart from the crowd is that he isn’t OK with it and he does something about it. He does something dramatic about it. He doesn’t write a $32 check to Compassion International each month and go on a mission trip once a year. He lives a lifestyle in opposition to the devastation. He lives a lifestyle that is a remedy to the problem, not a faux-solution to the symptom.

I hate when people raise a bunch of issues and offer no solutions. But I’m going to do it. I also hate publicly acknowledging problems and making myself accountable to doing something about them. If you didn’t notice, I referenced myself up and down a few paragraphs above when citing reasons why we find it OK that people live as they do in the world.

I am part of the problem. The need is so great because of people just like me.

People just like me, full of the Holy Spirit and completely capable of offering the power of God to people in practical and supernatural ways, sit on that gift and let it rot, just like in Jesus’ parable of the talents. We fall in line with the systems of the world, earning our degrees, getting our jobs, finding our mates, buying our homes and having our kids, going to church and making a difference once in a while. And we’re OK with it–heck we long for it–because that’s what we’re taught to do.

People just like me dig through the scriptures looking for all of God’s promises, remembering occasionally that those promises are means to two ends: love God more and love others more. Somewhere down the line–far down the line–is: make our lives more comfortable and enjoyable.

And yet, the need is so great. The need is so great for people just like me to, “in view of God’s mercy, offer our bodies as a living sacrifices… as our spiritual act of worship”… and “not conform any longer to the pattern of this world…” There is way too much hearing going on in the church and not enough doing. Faith without works is dead. Period. And if you want to know what the standard is for works, look at Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospels and the apostles’ lives as record in Acts.

“If you know the good you ought to do, and do not do it, you have sinned.” In light of this scripture, many of us live a lifestyle of sin…

…and the scriptures call us out once again.

Joel Maust

Joel Maust is a blogger, marketer and photographer living in the beautiful Flathead Valley of northwest Montana.