It’s not often that I feel lost, but there are those times when I am completely out of my element. In southern Louisiana, for instance, surrounded by high humidity and mosquitoes and heat and mosquitoes and a beautiful bayou and mosquitoes and some of the most amazing people I could possibly meet … oh, and mosquitoes! I love the Texas gulf, and I have spent much time there. I just haven’t travelled far to the east to spend time on the bayou, but that I did when I went with a group from our church and our conference on a mission trip to the Sager Brown UMCOR Depot.
The United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has been around for many years and was made a permanent part of the General Board of Global Ministries in 1972. The work of UMCOR is to provide aid and disaster relief both locally and around the world, and the Sager Brown campus has been used by UMCOR with the construction of a 40,000 square foot warehouse since 1992. Sager Brown itself was originally a school and orphanage for African American children in southern Louisiana that functioned as such for more than 110 years. Sager Brown is located in Baldwin, Louisiana, in the St. Mary Parish, which is the poorest parish in all of Louisiana. It was here that we found ourselves working along with another 4,000 or so people who come here each year to help provide for those in our world who are devastated by poverty and natural disasters.
I had almost forgotten how massive 40,000 square feet of warehouse can be, and this is only one of several places that UMCOR prepares to meet needs around the world. It is in this warehouse that we stock cleaning buckets (previously called flood buckets) to help with cleanup after anything from hurricanes to fire to floods. We stock school kits sent to children in impoverished countries for whom basic school supplies are generally only a dream. We stock things such as birthing kits and layette kits that we don’t even think about because of modern healthcare and an abundance of supplies for parenting. We stock healthcare or hygiene kits that amount to little more than a quick trip to our local pharmacy yet which are considered extreme luxuries for people in poverty. This is the ministry that is Sager Brown.
Yet there I was complaining about the mosquitos and the heat. As I told the congregation the Sunday after we returned, I had actually been complaining about how much my back and arms hurt while packing and stacking several pallets of both layette kits (the lighter box) and school kits (the heavier box) until I found out that a 92-year-old man did my job only one week prior to my being there. So I was left only with the complaint about the mosquitoes.
Then because mosquitoes weren’t enough for me to worry about, one of the members of our team got a shot of the other danger in the bayou … alligators.
Now I had more to add to my list. Then it happened. On our last morning there, I got up early and went outside. The sun was radiant, and I found myself moving toward the dock overlooking the bayou and there it was … a place of beauty like none other. In that moment, I was like the prodigal who was in a foreign land and then suddenly came to himself.
Here I was on the Bayou Teche looking at one of the most magnificent views I could have ever hoped to see. It was then that I could see it … beyond the heat and the sweat and, yes, even the mosquitoes was the message. In the poorest parish in Louisiana, God was at work taking everything that we consider by the worlds standards to be lacking … poverty … powerlessness … hopelessness … weakness, and God saw that as strength and beauty and a richness that we can barely begin to fathom.
It is the message that I have been preaching in recent weeks. We don’t welcome the “little ones” or feed the starving or reach out to the marginalized because they need us (the rich and powerful) to make their lives better. We reach out to “the least of these, [our] brothers and sisters” precisely because they hold the keys to the kingdom. We offer hospitality in hopes that we will be welcomed by them into the kingdom of heaven.
And I was immediately at home … with my surroundings … with myself … with my God. So my prayer is for UMCOR that it might always remind me that we are called to reach the poor with the hope that the poor will somehow reach us.