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.

By Joel Maust

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

8 replies on “Meridian, MS”

part of the problem is growing up in a church that doesn’t really know God, doesn’t seek His heart and doesn’t understand that our lives aren’t about us.
if we cared more about Him and getting to know Him, we would weep for what He weeps for and we would rejoice when our community rejoices.
money and time are important to give, but more than that, actually caring and praying and feeling God’s feelings. I think people forget that He has them. As a percusor to actually doing, knowing what God feels and bonding with Him in that, then giving out of that knowledge and not out of guilt or religion. Moving in the Spirit because you just love Him. It’s easy to give with the perspective.

Wow Joel!! It looks like God is challenging and touching you on a deeper level! It makes such a difference to see hurting people with your own eyes vs just reading about it, or seeing it on the news. These are people that you spoke with, physically touched, connected with on a very human level. In the end we are all the same. We all have the same basic needs and we were all created by the same God. I always think of Matthew 20: 16, “And so it is, that many who are first now will be last then; and those who are last now will be first then.” We have so much, and in our society there is a rat race to see who can generate more “things” than the other. Keeping up with the Jones is killing our spirits. Most of us don’t think twice about buying the newest and best of everything. In the end it is all going to turn to dust and the people we could be helping with that money will still be hungry. It’s like a disease. Most of us don’t even realize how materialistic we are b/c that is all we’ve ever known. We are complainers. When someone gives up something they have wanted, worked for, and waited for, that is an act of love. I know I don’t do that as often as I should. I shutter at the thought of God’s judgement on His people for being so stingy. (That includes me.)

I remember when I was about six years old, I went with my grandparents to Texas for three months. I missed my brothers so bad when I was gone. I remember watching a Feed the Children or Compassion commercial and there were little boys that resembled my brothers. In my little mind I thought I could see my brothers in the midst of the crowd. I remember saying to my grandma that I had to help my brothers b/c they were hungry and the thought of them made me cry. My grandma tried to explain to me that those children were in Mexico and my brothers were in Michigan but I just couldn’t put the two together. I think that so many of us think that just b/c it’s not our family or neighbors that are in need we don’t have an obligation to help or sacrifice. It’s a disease of our American minds. We want everything to be fluffy and nice so we ignore it or we give a couple dollars in the missions plate. What would Jesus do?

i looked at your pictures. there is so much sorrow and loss. and i can see it in you, you’re not exactly the same. you are changed, but it’s good because you saw a little bit of God’s heart. He sees this all the time and He doesn’t sleep. He weeps and He mourns His people and yet He is so filled with hope. Nothing overwhelms our Abba. How often do we forget God’s feelings…
and for the people…it’s really not about the material things, but being torn from your home, your community, your life. i mean, of course, i thought of not storing up treasures on earth but in heaven. and i thought about how short our lives are and all of that. but more than that, i thought about the lost people of the south. mississippi was still desperately poor before this and where were we?
i thought about the religion, the mixed theology, the depraved, the bewildered, the confused, the suffering and that felt more like loss than anything. missionaries sent into religious areas to speak truth and break strongholds.
is that me?
how honored are we to represent God on earth. let’s make Him proud.

looking forward to talking with you more about this good work God is doing in you. i spoke this morning at ww on the poor in our society to help people engage. it’s the 3rd in a series of 4 where we’re trying to help people tap into the generous spirit God gives us each to love each other in practical ways. wish i’d have read your blog before i spoke.

Thanks, all, who prayed and supported me while I was in Mississippi. A guy at church reminded me that the intercessors hit it for me the Tuesday I was away. That was good to hear, because that’s when things really started sinking in down there.

I accidentally ran across the blog entry while searching for something else and I have to comment. I am not sure where you are from, or what you are used to, but your comments on Meridian are way off base. I am telling myself to not jump to conclusions…. because I am sure that some people have exaggerated the state of affairs where they helped out after Katrina to make themselves look better. Maybe you just went into a bad neighborhood and did not take time to really see what the area you were in is like. Because there certainly *are* bad neighborhoods in Meridian, just as there is in any town in any state in this nation. I am trying to find some census statistics because having lived all over the US, I find it hard to believe that Meridian is “one of the poorest cities in one of the poorest states.” Yes, Mississippi is poor. However, numbers don’t prove everything. We have a very low cost of living compared to “richer” areas. And we also tend to have a simpler way of life, which makes money go much further. If you want to see poor, try going to the Delta where there are still people living in something like sharecropper shacks. Not too many years ago there was a tv show (20/20 maybe) that featured some towns in the Delta where there were open sewers in the community. But honestly, most of that is gone now and things have improved greatly (especially the education system).

I grew up in Lauderdale county, just a few miles outside of the city limits of Meridian. I moved away but came back to raise my kids here by choice. I bought a house…. dirt cheap. And no, it’s not rickety. I sustained MAJOR damage in Katrina but a house doesn’t have to be rickety to be destroyed by a 100 year old tree going through it. My kids graduated high school in a school system that has drop out rates way lower than the national average and exit test score higher than the national average. In every high school in this county (city schools included) you will find 17 year olds driving brand new SUV’s, wearing designer clothes, and carrying cell phones and iPods. The picture you painted of my home town is one of abject poverty, of people barely scraping by and living in houses where a strong wind would blow it over. Sure, there are a few small sections like that. I bet you can find the same level of poverty within 20 miles of your hometown though.

Your assumption that things would be back on track 5 months later shows how little you know about post-Hurricane rebuilding. It’s not unique to Meridian. I lived inland from Myrtle Beach SC when Hugo hit. I discovered that a week after the storm hit there were still people trapped in their homes because roads were still closed from fallen trees. Some homes were never repaired. I had friends in Florida for Ivan. People were still living in FEMA trailers (much of the home loss there wasn’t structural but areas that weren’t directly hit were without power for so long that they lost homes to mold and mildew) when Katrina hit nearly 2 years later. A large disaster takes time to recover from, and especially one with the number of victims that Katrina had because there just aren’t enough contractors to go around, and never enough money to go around no matter what state you are in.

It isn’t OK when rain falls in a hole in the roof. But it took me almost 4 months of living under a tarp before I could find a contractor to just get my house dry again. It was over a year before the new roof and siding were done. It isn’t my extreme poverty. (My husband makes six figures, in case you wondered, and I am a fairly successful photographer/artist.) It was lack of contractors because so many went to the coast and New Orleans. And a lack of building materials. I am not sure what kind of “oblivion of our pre-Katrina days” you were referring to…. it makes no sense.

I am grateful for everyone who came from other areas to help after this disaster. But please, don’t paint such a negative picture of this area. Lauderdale county (where the city of Meridian is) has so much new home construction that there is almost a year wait to get a home builder right now. This isn’t because of people losing their homes in Katrina. We had very few homes completely lost, mostly just roof damage. It’s because the residents can afford new homes and are building them. While we do have some pockets of poverty like any town and we do have several government owned housing projects, we also have some very successful and happy residents building 2500+ square foot homes in gated subdivisions while driving SUV’s, sending their children to expensive private schools and dance and gymnastics and cheerleading coaching and owning every toy that every other “successful” person in this country owns. I personally find much of the excess unnecessary and somewhat obscene and don’t participate, but it exists here too.

Thanks for helping out the victims of Katrina, but before you go about telling your readers how desperately poor Mississippi is, maybe you should look closer to home and see that there are desperately poor communities in every state in the US, and most likely there are people in your immediate area who are living in conditions that would frighten and disgust us all. Starting at home is always the best place to start.

If you really want to know what Meridian is like, just email me. As a photographer, I can show you the side of this town that you so obviously missed. We are a small town with problems like most other towns right now, but it’s a great place to live. We have a mall and shopping centers and a concert hall, a great local symphony, an arts district, wonderful schools, thriving businesses….. and very low crime rates. Maybe on charts the area is “poor” but with lower cost of living, that’s deceptive. I hope you get a chance to see the good side of this area one day.

BTW, did you know that we have had a large number of people come here for relief work who have moved here permanently because they loved it so much? The friendly people, the low cost of living, the beautiful weather, the educational opportunities….. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?

Rebecca: I apologize if my post came across as being critical of Meridian. That certainly was not my intent at all. I wanted to stir my few readers of this blog to prayer and service. Katrina’s impact had all but fallen off the media radar at that point–besides the occasional update on New Orleans. And being from Michigan, even those were few and far between.

While in Mississippi, our exposure to Meridian was pretty limited, as you pointed out. We had local contacts who connected us with Habitat for Humanity and other relief organizations. I have no doubt there were “nicer” parts of town that we didn’t drive by. Since we came to work and not sightsee, we didn’t get around much.

Jackson, Mich., the city in which I live, would probably be considered by many to be one of the poorest cities in our state. We’re home to the state penitentiary and a flailing manufacturing industry crippled by a flailing Detroit auto business. But that doesn’t bother me. I’m not critical of my town, as I’m not critical of yours. I recognize both Jackson and Meridian need help in some areas, as all cities do. Jackson has its mansions and wealthy areas on the south side of town. Yet, I don’t consider those with energy-consuming monster houses and gas-guzzling Escalades and Hummers to be rich and therefore better off; I consider them wasteful and poor stewards of what they have been given.

There’s lots more I could say and I might e-mail you with more thoughts… But it’s hard for two people who don’t know each other to have conversations like these that are productive, because written words can only communicate so much. And we don’t know each others hearts, nor each others homes. I respect your defense of your city and am glad it is a great place to live.
I never concluded otherwise. I just saw a lot of people that needed help (which isn’t the same as being helpless) and I hoped to stir others to join the cause.

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