At the risk of only reporting on the food (and the weather!) I have to tell you that I had a genuine (gen-U-aihn…) southern meal yesterday at the Country Fisherman in Mendenhall, Mississippi—that’s right, fried catfish, fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, collard greens (not fried) and sweet tea—topped off with banana nilla wafer pudding for dessert! As if that wasn’t enough to shoot the cholesterol through the roof, this morning we started the day off with eggs, biscuits, bacon and sausage gravy. No salads for these Californians!
Yesterday a couple of us drove up to Mendenhall, Mississippi for the day to visit the Mendenhall Bible Church. I have known of Mendenhall because St. Andrew’s Church has been working with them for years. About ten years ago, when my parents were traveling around the country in their motor home, they were in the area and decided to stop and visit Mendenhall to see the work they were doing there. As part of that visit they got a tour by Dolphus Weary, a black man who grew up in Mendenhall, and who, when he had a chance to leave for a better life said “I ain’t never comin’ back!” Except that he did. He could have left, but he came back to try to help others who were still stuck in a life of poverty and some pretty intense racial prejudice—the rail road tracks literally split the town between the ‘wrong’ and the ‘right’ side of the tracks, depending on if you are black or white. It was hearing how much this encounter with Dolphus had impacted my dad, not someone to be easily moved, that made such an impression on me.
Back in Gulfport the work continues… I have some pictures up on http://www.edunny.com. We are now a group of almost 50—our group from Newport Beach, Irvine and Westminster along with a group from Vienna, Virginia and a group that has just arrived from Greensboro, North Carolina. The North Carolina group have been trying to teach me how to sound like a southerner– “It’s y’all, not you all” and definitely not ‘you guys!’
One of the things I have been amazed by here on the gulf in Mississippi is how much work is left to be done—and how, much of the time, the system seems to be working against that. For instance, a group from our team was working outside of Biloxi, on the house of Mini. She just moved into her house (from her FEMA trailer) in September, but still does not have gas to the house for cooking and hot water. Our group had the ability and expertise to hook up her gas line for her, but found out that you cannot do that without a licensed plumber (I didn’t realize a plumber was in charge of the gas line?) from Biloxi to pull the permit. Problem is, the licensed plumbers in Biloxi are already booked up solid with work, and most of them would rather not work on houses like Mini’s when they have the option of working for larger industrial projects. Even if you were to find a licensed plumber from Gulfport who was willing to do it, he (or she) would not be able to because they are not licensed in Biloxi! Word is that this is an attempt to keep jobs for locals, but it seems to lack some basic common sense. So, the bottom line is that people like Mini are left without the ability to cook, even though we could have her up and running—and all up to code, because of the politics. If anyone has a connection with the Mississippi state legislature, this might be a good topic for discussion!
At the same time as there is so much work to be done, it is also really amazing to drive through these neighborhoods and see how much work is being done, much of it by the churches. Person after person that I have talked to that we have been working with has said, if it weren’t for the churches, we don’t know what we’d do. It is an encouraging reminder, in the midst of how much bad press the church gets these days (and much of it deserved!), to see the churches, “walking the walk and not just talking the talk,” as one non-churchy, non-religious person from our group commented to me the other night.
Speaking of our group, it is an interesting mix. We have a few attorneys, a guy recently release from jail, architects, retirees, high school students, a grandmother and her grandson, a man who fought in the Korean War and a young Korean man, Pentecostals and Presbyterians and some who’ve never stepped foot in a church…all working together, getting to know each other, and helping the people of Mississippi. It really is an amazing experience. I asked George Bates, who runs the relief center here for the Presbyterian Church, if anyone could come down and help, or if they had to be part of a group. George, who has the most fantastic southern accent I think I have ever heard, said “well, if they wanted to come as a group of one that would be fine by me.” So, if you’re interested, there’s your invitation!