Monday, 29 April 2013

Serving on Staten Island

Six months ago, Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast.  As with most tragedies and natural disasters, we heard a lot in the news for awhile, we prayed for them, and then slowly many forgot about the people who had lost nearly everything they had.  But on Staten Island, believers from US states and Ontario are volunteering their time to rebuild houses for families that still have not been able to return home.

Last week I had the privilege of traveling to Staten Island with a team from my youth group and serving with Mennonite Disaster Service.  Over the course of five days, we worked with other volunteers in various homes that had been flooded by the hurricane.  Our teams spent time mudding, sanding, painting, trimming windows, installing doors, and doing various other renovations.  Many had the privilege of meeting homeowners and hearing their experiences from the hurricane.  A few young ladies were busy at the seminary we stayed at preparing food and snacks for us and we were fed very well.

I think all of us were blessed to be a part of rebuilding and restoring what was broken six months ago.  We were blessed with great leaders that guided and encouraged us throughout the week as well as for the time we were able to get to know new people and play games in the evening.  We have stored up a lot of memories that we will treasure for a long time.

It's hard to explain what we felt and wondered during our time serving.  The seminary we stayed at for the week was higher up on Staten Island in a neighbourhood of large, beautiful homes hardly affected by the storm.  But only five minutes away, down towards the coast, many families had lost nearly everything they had.  DO NOT ENTER was painted on a door next to a lot where it looked like a house had been leveled.  Inspection notices were posted on many windows and doors.  Debris and garbage was still tangled up in trees and brush.  Many businesses in the city had not reopened yet and many business owners had just left.  Some houses didn't look affected on the outside, but the insides were ruined.  And other neighbourhoods only blocks away looked as if nothing had happened.

We were reminded how nice our part of the rebuilding task was compared to the people who had to come in after the storm, scoop mud out of the houses, and tear everything out of the basements and main floors.  We had the luxury of coming back at the end of the day to a comfortable place to stay, showers, a big, hot dinner prepared for us, and an enjoyable evening to look forward to.  Although we did a lot work, we actually felt pretty spoiled at times.

As I shared in our group devotional on evening, Jesus didn't separate the Gospel from meeting physical needs.  When Jesus sent His disciples out, He told them to proclaim that the kingdom of heaven was at hand.  But that's not all that He said.  He told them to meet physical needs.  They had received freely and they were to give just as freely.  Jesus spent a great deal of time in His earthly ministry feeding the hungry, healing the sick, casting out demons, cleansing lepers and so forth.  We are called to do the same.  It's a demonstration of our faith.

Meeting physical needs often opens the door for sharing the Gospel.  Seeing a group of people joyfully giving of their time and resources to help complete strangers and receiving nothing in return will cause many to ask "Why?".  We went to restore houses, and through that we can show people the One who restores lives.  Throughout this trip, I frequently thought of the song "Build Us Back".  Although written after the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, I think it's very fitting for what we did in Staten Island
and a great reminder that Jesus is our Redeemer and Restorer.

I can't possibly share in one article all I experienced in New York.  Our youth group will be sharing a presentation of our trip in the near future, so you may have to wait until then to hear more.  In one word, it was AMAZING!  We saw prayers answered, grew in love for one another, strengthened friendships, made new ones, and were sad to leave and part with people we had grown to appreciate so much in just a few short days.  In short, I would love to go back and do it all over again, but for longer next time!

If you would like to learn more about what MDS does, how you can volunteer with a project, or give, please visit the Mennonite Disaster Service website.  The work is ongoing and the need is great.  If you have the opportunity to volunteer, I can assure it's an experience you will not regret.  Please continue to pray for their work.

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