Diary of an Astrodome Volunteer
It was Sunday.
I went there with one mission – to pass out Bibles that another volunteer said were needed, and to find children with disabilities so that at least I would feel useful – I knew how I could help them, and their parents. I had a child with autism.
The 10 minute orientation for the volunteers did little to prepare us for what would be experienced over the next 8 hours.
When I made the trek from the volunteer center to the “community”, I didn’t quite know what to expect. From what I’d seen on the news about the Superdome, I prepared myself for panic and chaos. I pictured people scurrying around in fear. But what I saw was calmness. Jesus on the boat holding up his arms to calm the waves and quiet the worried disciples.
There were post-it notes of sisters separated from brothers, husbands looking for their wives. People walking by looking at the names on the board – hoping to see one they knew. With hardly any communication, actually no communication, all one could simply do was watch the signs as people walked around advertising who they were looking for. Instead of being ungrateful that more was not being done, they were simply thankful. Thankful to be out of the sweltering hell they called the Superdome, with the stench so great they would rather take their chances sleeping outside on cement, than inside on a cot. Seeing all those lists of missing friends, family members, relatives; made me think of those who I loved and whether their name would be on the list of eternal life that God would be searching through one day. I vowed to be a better Christian witness to them.
It wasn’t so much a question of where to volunteer, it was a question of where not to volunteer. The needs were so great. The volunteers and help they could provide so few in comparison. I wanted to go where I would truly make the most difference and feel worthy. Much to my surprise, that turned out to be picking up garbage in the hallways, bathroom, and eating area. In the bathroom I saw mothers giving their babies baths in the dirty sink with no soap. I closed my eyes and saw Jesus washing his disciples dirty feet; and knew that the job I was doing was worthy indeed.
The only thing identifying me as a volunteer and not a “guest”, was the peach wristband given to me at training. We were told that as volunteers we could eat upstairs away from everything – and everyone. But no one I saw did that. There was no need for barriers. There were no walls of division, race, rank, or status. It was simply people among people. The VIP’s carrying boxes of supplies, the janitorial crew being served by community leaders. God’s children among God’s children. Very much living, I saw how heaven would be.
I found myself taking a break and sitting at a table where one woman was sharing her experiences of waiting out the hurricane in the Superdome as the roof was ripped off and the rain came pouring in. She’d witnessed the craze of those taking advantage of others. She stood in lines where the military had rifles pointed ready to shoot anyone who got unruly. When she asked what would happen to them, they simply stared forward and said nothing. “How could our own people turn against us?” she said in anguish. “We were treated like we were less than human,” she recalled as those in charge would completely stop the food distribution for everyone, when a handful of people got out of control. “Just not knowing” was the hardest. There was no communication. No T.V. She knew buses would be coming. But she didn’t know when. Nor really where to go. So every morning her family would wake up at 4am and stand in a line, and wait. 6pm came, and after she had watched dozens pass out from heat and exhaustion, her family finally gave up, only to do it all over again the next day. She knows she was one of the lucky ones. She ended up in Houston, only missing one sister out of 4. There was more she wanted to share, but she just couldn’t. All she could say was, “Thank you, thank you, thank you, – thank you for making us feel human again.” Thank you for showing us love. I asked if I could hug her, and while doing so pictured the scenes in the Bible where Jesus embraced those whom no one else would.
Time for the clothes and supply distribution lines to open. My job – to get people what they needed. It was here that I learned the true meaning of what a “Food and Clothing Drive” should be. Often when I would participate in those efforts – I gave what I didn’t need, or didn’t want – and thought I would be doing someone a great service. Here, today, I experienced being a recipient of my past generosity. And what a realization that was. Digging through piles and piles of people’s old and discarded outdated clothes showed me how truly selfish I had been. How could these people who have no homes, no money, and no clothes, ever hope to go out and rebuild their lives wearing mismatched outfits, purple sequined stained shirts, and wearing no socks or underwear? I know some would say that they should be thankful for what they have. And trust me, they were. They would have gladly taken used underwear – if there were any. From now on I will give – only what I would want to wear. I will give gifts worthy of a carpenter turned King.
I mingle with men and women among the masses of cots lined neatly row by row – an odd feeling in itself. Keenly aware that I was invading the privacy that no one really had. One elderly woman lying all alone seemed like she needed a friend. So I asked her, “Do you mind if I stay and talk with you?” She said, “Sure, — if you like.” She was fine. But with the wisdom of her years, she knew that I was saying that more for me than for her. We both knew I couldn’t offer her anything she really wanted, which was to be in her own home and in her own bed. I pictured the little drummer boy who had nothing to offer the king – except for himself. And so that is what I gave her for the next 10 minutes.
On to the next row where a woman was sitting on her cot. “What can I get you?” I cheerily asked. This was one of the many times that I wished I had a delete button to hit before the words actually came out of my mouth. But too late – the look in her eyes in response was about as empty as the box of possessions beside her. I don’t know how else I could have asked that, but hearing myself ask it seemed so lame in light of what brought her here. Here was a woman who deserved the most expensive bottle of perfume poured on her feet. Instead, I gave her socks and moved on.
Out in the hallway where the children were playing was the only sense of normalcy. Five or six little boys who found a football were on either end of the hallway – playing catch and trying to see if they could hit the light fixture hanging from the ceiling. Typical. At least for some in that shelter, life seemed unchanged.
Back in the food area though – life was changing. I stop and listen as a mother has her middle school age children sitting around the table – lecturing them on how to make the right choices by staying in school and getting good grades, and not getting pregnant until married, and going to college to earn a degree to get a career – so that they would never have to find themselves in the position that she was in. No husband, no education, no job, and no home. A mother facing the reality of the importance of training up your children in the way they should go. And her children seeing the results of what could happen if they don’t.
There were many young mothers holding babies and toddles all day long because they could not bring their strollers or didn’t have time to get them. I asked mom after mom if they would like me to hold their baby while they ate. None would allow me. For them I think, their babies were the only things they had left in this world, their only true possession, and they would not part with them for anything. I felt instantly warmed by God’s arms wrapped tightly, possessively, around me. Not ever wanting to let me go either.
The bright spot to me were the pregnant mothers. I met a mom who was very, very, pregnant, and wondered how many baby girl Katrina’s there would beâ€¦.reminders of how even in the midst of destruction and despair, God brings new life, new hope, new rainbowsâ€¦.
My Bibles are gone, but I go back in the area where the cots are one more time. I still had not found who I was looking for. It was getting late in the day and my main mission was not yet accomplished. I didn’t know his name, but I knew that I would know when I found him. And there he was. Rocking back and forth, with his mom holding his hands. I go up to her and ask just to confirm what I knew was true. “Yes, he does have autism,” she says. “Do you need anything? Anything at all?” “No,” she responds. “Do you have a place to go?” “Yes, – we will be leaving shortly”. We exchange names and I give her my number so that if it doesn’t work out – she can call me. I stay for a while and talk. Joshua was doing fine as long as his mom was there holding him. I guess that would be one benefit of being in your own world and not understanding what is going on around you. As I get up to leave, I ask, “Will you call me when you get to where you are going?” I wanted to make sure they were ok. She smiles, nods, and says, “I will.” I told her why I needed to find her son. I told her about my son who has autism and how I needed to know that if he and I were in that position, that someone would come looking for usâ€¦. I sign in relief grateful that there is a shepherd who won’t rest until every lost sheep is found and brought safely home.
It’s dinner time, and I find myself serving in the food line. By this time I am really trying to process all that I took in from the day. I find myself obsessed with trying to put the shredded beef neatly in the middle of the bun so as to not make a mess. Thinking that a “perfect sandwich” will somehow cancel out the imperfect conditions our guests must endure until they get their lives back in order. But to no avail. With so many to feed, neatness is mission impossible! The line leader shouts, “I need more sandwiches!” The people didn’t care about neat sandwiches anyway. Most were thankful to just have a hot meal in an air-conditioned building with chairs to sit on. They gladly took the plates, smiled, and said “Thank You.” I make a mental note to be as thankful myself when I go back home.
Finally home, I sit down and put my feet up. They did hurt, but not nearly as bad as my heart. I wondered as I fell asleep that night how much more Jesus’ feet hurt as he carried the cross that day. How much more did his heart hurt for the entire world? Would he do it again?
As bad as life seems sometimes, and as little hope as we something think there is for humanity – it is times like this that you see that people do care and that there is hope. Sure there were those who complained that I couldn’t find them a brown bag instead of the black one – or the tennis shoes instead of dress shoes. There were those who weren’t happy with shredded beef on a bun no matter how neatly it was made. But overall — I saw people. Not evacuee’s, not refugee’s, and not even the victims of an event. I saw people in need of help from other people. I saw unselfishness and servanthood at its best. I saw what community is all about. I saw what being an American is all about. I saw people doing for other people exactly what Jesus would do for them.
I wake up the next morning with the answer to the last question that I went to bed with the night before.
“Yes,” Jesus answers, “I wouldâ€¦…”
And I make room in my schedule to volunteer as long as it is neededâ€¦.
It was nice to experience a sermon for once, and not just hear one.
Written by: Michelle M. Guppy
“Hope rebuilds what the world washes away” – Michelle M. Guppy