watching coverage ot the Boston Marathon bombing and the West fertilizer explosion and nourished my faith in service.
We stayed at Sager Brown, a 23-acre campus with ten buildings located in Baldwin, an hour-an-a-half drive west of New Orleans. It’s headquarters for relief-supply operations of the United Methodist Church Overseas Relief (UMCOR).
Last year 3,000 volunteers visited the center and its 48,000 square foot depot to ship six million dollars in emergency supplies and services around the world and assist local residents in poverty with monthly food distributions and ongoing housing improvements.
Sager Brown’s work schedules facilitate a third mission: a worship and retreat center for volunteers. Work was scheduled from 9:00 am to 11:30 am and 1:00 pm to 3:30 pm, allowing me time to rest or enjoy watching water in the Bayou Teche ebb and flow with the tides and listen to choruses of unfamiliar bird calls.
People met daily for worship. We enjoyed a spontaneously organized jam session by musicians that turned into an hour-a-half songfest of old time hymns. Volunteers prepared a Thursday vespers service with different Christian faiths among the volunteers.
Dormitories had spotless linoleum floors linking communal bathrooms to comfortable rooms without TVs, radios, or newspapers, limiting outside contact to wireless devices. I easily retreated from current news by finishing a book and scanning email.
Fulltime staff prepared home-style southern buffets three times a day, beginning promptly by gathering in a circle around the dining room for announcements and an opening prayer. We talked about our various projects or plans for the week, only briefly mentioning the tragic news filtering in. I was glad to focus on the mission at hand.
I volunteered to work on an assembly line in the clean well-lit warehouse to pack items into cleaning buckets. Karen sewed, stitched and packed school supplies into colorful bookbags. Others packed health kits and school-supplies boxes.
In the afternoon I joined friendly, cooperative construction crews working to improve housing conditions requested by local residents and approved by Sager Brown officials.
Tuesday and Thursday mornings all volunteers were asked to load two shipping containers destined for the former Soviet Republic of Georgia.
Even that work was a celebration of spirit. Teams of six to eight volunteers took turns unloading 47 pallets and stacking boxes within inches of the top of the container. After stacking one row we walked out to the applause from fellow volunteers as the next team headed up the ramp. We chatted and rested until our next turn.
On the way to lunch after we loaded the container on Thursday I saw the truck roll by with 31,584 health care kits headed halfway across the world. I felt linked in service, not just feeling like a helpless observer to the most recent disaster.
That same day headquarters staff was making preparations to ship the clean-up kits I had worked on to people recovering from the fertilizer plant explosion.
Last week I was lucky to be at the Sager Brown retreat that shielded us from the images and talk of tragedies that our house-sitter said, “were everywhere.”
I was even luckier that it was a place of worship where I could make a meaningful contribution to an ongoing mission for those who are suffering..